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Bookmakers lay odds on new pope

But favorites often fail in papal succession

By Tammy Oaks for CNN

Favorite: Germany's Ratzinger
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VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- With the College of Cardinals preparing to enter the conclave and cast the first votes for the new pontiff, bookmakers around the world are laying odds on who will emerge the 265th pope.

Betting firms and local media are backing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, who gave John Paul's funeral oration, but history advises punters to beware of favored candidates.

At lunchtime Tuesday after three ballots to pick the next pontiff, Ratzinger remained favorite on two out of the three online betting boards, with Intertops giving him the shortest odds at 5/2.

Ratzinger was a 11/2 second favorite for Dublin, Ireland-based Paddy Power and 9/2 favorite at Britain's William Hill. Nigeria's Francis Arinze led with Paddy Power on 7/2.

French cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger was third for Paddy Power (6/1) and also for William Hill (11/2) who put Arize second at 5/1.

Making up the top six in all three lists were 78-year-old Italian Carlo Maria Martini; his successor as the archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi and Claudio Hummes of Brazil.

For those favoring long odds, Paddy Power was offering 125-1 odds on 13 different cardinals.

But papal conclaves have a long history of not electing the candidates deemed most likely to win by the media.

According to George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, "The chances of being elected pope decreases in proportion to the number of times he is described papabile in the press."

This trend, which Weigel coined The Pignedoli Principle, is named after Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, the papal candidate most widely favored by the media to win in 1978.

Following media predictions, Pignedoli prepared for victory by going on a crash diet so that he could fit into his cassock.

However, in a surprise turn of events, Albino Luciani, who was never mentioned as a possible candidate prior to the conclave, emerged the victor and became Pope John Paul I.

Even the recently deceased Pope John Paul II was not considered a viable candidate by the media when his predecessor died after only 33 days as pope.

The public was shocked to learn that Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the first non-Italian to be elected Holy Father in over 400 years, had received more votes than Cardinals Giuseppe Siri or Giovanni Benelli, the two candidates most strongly favored to succeed Pope John Paul I.

Weigel claims that with the exception of Pope Pius XII in 1939 and Pope Paul VI in 1963, "everyone else was a surprise, at least as measured by public speculation prior to the conclave."

By this standard, the very fact that Ratzinger's name has saturated the Italian media makes him a risky contender on which to place a wager.

While keeping an eye on more unlikely candidates is an important consideration, bettors will also want to keep another trend in mind before hitting the bookmakers.


According to Rev. Richard P. McBrien, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, the pattern of conclaves over the last century and a half dictates that "the next pope will be succeeded by someone very different from himself."

This trend, however, is widely disputed. Because Pope John Paul II's reign was the second longest in history, which subsequently led to him naming all but two of the cardinal electors, there is speculation that the next pope will be like-minded, like Ratzinger.

McBrien, however, points out that Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius XII and Paul VI were all succeeded by cardinals who were in stark contrast to them in terms of personality and mind-set.

And, like Pope John Paul II, each of these popes reigned for more than 15 years respectively and named the majority of cardinal electors.

Pius IX, a conservative, was succeeded by the moderate Leo XIII. And Leo XIII was in turn succeeded by the conservative Pius X. An austere and aloof Pius XII was succeeded by a jovial and affectionate John XXIII, who in turn was succeeded by a happy and contemporary Paul VI.

Unfortunately for Ratzinger, dean of the cardinals, it is precisely his bond with and similarities to John Paul II that makes him the frontrunner for the papal throne.

Before wagering on papal predictions, where being a favorite is a handicap, bettors may want to take heed of this old Italian saying: "Go in a pope, come out a cardinal."

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