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Gambling with God: Staking a wager on the next pope

By Nick Thompson, CNN
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Milan's Angelo Scola is odds-on favorite to be elected as next pope
  • Ghana's Turkson, Canada's Ouellet also in top five for UK bookmakers
  • Betting on next pope "biggest non-sporting event of year," says Irish bookmaker
  • Bono, Richard Dawkins, Silvio Berlusconi among underdogs offered by bookmakers

(CNN) -- The love of money may be the root of all evil according to the Bible, but that hasn't stopped bookmakers from offering odds on who will emerge from the white smoke as the next pope.

At odds as low as 2-1, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is the bookmakers' favorite to succeed Benedict XVI, who Thursday becomes the first pope to step down for almost 600 years.

Those betting an African will take the Catholic Church's top job for the first time will be happy to hear Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson is running a close second at 5-2, while Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, is currently running third with odds of 3-1.

MORE: Conclave to elect new pope starts Tuesday

Claire Davies, a spokeswoman at Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, said more than £300,000 ($450,000) in bets on the next pope have been placed since Benedict's resignation -- and that's before the papal conclave to choose the next church head has even started.

The faithful fill St. Peter's Square as Pope Benedict XVI attends his last public audience on Wednesday, February 27, in Vatican City. Benedict's decision to resign earlier this month caught a lot of Vatican watchers, apparently even some in his inner circle, off-guard. The faithful fill St. Peter's Square as Pope Benedict XVI attends his last public audience on Wednesday, February 27, in Vatican City. Benedict's decision to resign earlier this month caught a lot of Vatican watchers, apparently even some in his inner circle, off-guard.
Benedict XVI's final papal audience
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"It's our biggest non-sporting event of the year," Davies told CNN, "and we expect the betting to really pick up as we head towards the conclave."

MORE: Could next pope come from Africa?

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer round out Paddy Power's top five -- and though betting on the next pope is illegal in the U.S., the Irish bookmaker is offering 20-1 odds on Cardinal Timothy Dolan, America's top Catholic.

But Vatican insiders aren't the only prospective pontiffs punters can wager on in the hopes that a puff of white smoke will finally put their bank accounts into the black.

Davies says nine more bets have been placed on Father Dougal Maguire -- the dimwitted fictional priest from Irish television sitcom "Father Ted" and a 10,000-1 underdog -- than for Claudio Hummes, a Brazilian cardinal who also has the added benefit of being a real person.

MORE: Was Benedict the right man for the job?

Paddy Power says it has also drawn 20 bets at 1,000-1 that U2 singer Bono will be the next pope, and another five on Richard Dawkins, the famously outspoken atheist and scientist, at an ominous 666-1. One British bookmaker is even offering 10,000-1 odds that disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong will be chosen to head up the church.

But the bookies' odds aren't necessarily the best indicator of who the next pope will be, and a phrase repeated by Cardinal Javier Barragan of Mexico is worth remembering: "He who enters the conclave as a possible pope comes out a cardinal."

According to Davies, Pope Benedict was 20-1 after his predecessor's death in 2005 before rising to 6-1 at the start of the conclave -- "up with the favorites, but not a nailed-on certainty."

MORE: How is a new pope elected?

While the next pope will almost certainly be chosen from among the cardinals set to attend the conclave at the Vatican within the next few weeks, technically any practicing Catholic can be elected to lead the church.

So if you're feeling lucky, there's already one former leader living in Italy who has spare time on his hands. Three-time ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi may be an underdog -- but at 2,500-1, at least there's a chance.

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