POPE Benedict XVI's sudden abdication of the papacy has far-reaching consequences for world affairs. They extend beyond theological divisions in the Church and thorny liturgical and eschatological issues to a potentially sharpened confessional rivalry between Islamic extremism and Christianity.
Pope Benedict laboured to diminish elements of the Second Vatican Council affirmed by Pope John Paul II, and restored the Church's mission to countering secularism, reviving traditional orthodoxy and a sense of Catholic identity. Its present 1.2 billion following worldwide is still growing, and Benedict's reputation appears intact to many Catholics as he leaves the Holy See.
Whether the next pontiff will emerge from the developing world will certainly be the focus of the conclave of 117 voting cardinals under 80 (four will turn 80 in March). The conclave will evaluate the papal candidates' admiration of Benedict's penchant for traditional orthodoxy and re-evangelisation, but aspects of the Second Vatican Council may regain ascendancy.
If "option for the poor" is preferred, the Church's missionary zeal will be close to the ground, particularly in countries experiencing poverty and poor governance. Church activism in the years 70s-90s in Central and South America comes to mind.
In Asia and Africa Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" seems relevant. The fault lines between Christianity and Islam extend from Mindanao, Philippines, to Mauritania. Contiguous Muslim majorities and minorites states abound from the Indonesian archipelago, traversing Eurasia, Caucasus, Middle East, and from Djibouti and Somalia to Senegal and Gambia.
Recent terrorism in North Africa and Mali are potential harbingers of further inter-faith clashes in the Sahel region and sub-Saharan Africa. Now we are witnessing ongoing ex-colonial French military forces, with US and allies' tacit support, hunting down Islamists in Mali and restoring some semblance of national integrity to that country.
In Northern Nigeria there are recurring clashes between the jihadists Boko Haram and Christians. Religious fault lines exist in Cameroon, Niger, Mali, Guinea, as well as in some East African states, with recent clashes in South Sudan.
Although thriving in sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity is sometimes threatened by tribal reprisals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a vast country plagued by internecine strife -- less so now in Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi which still bear scars of the genocide that influential local Catholics and world powers could not prevent or chose
On the world scale, these are a few of the realities the new pontiff will face. And it's unclear which church leader from the developing or industrialised world is best suited to address them. Regardless, it's likely that proselyting Christian clergy will encounter Muslim extremists along religious and ethnic fault lines.
In multi-confessional developing countries the eruption of violent conflict between religious extremists lurks. No telling what will be the reaction of skulking jihadists to Vatican activism and a robust clergy empathising with the poor.
Engaged clerics agitating for the impoverished increases in situations of poor governance and stark economic disparities, and the dispossessed will become more informed and emboldened. On the other hand, traditional theology may lose its radiance for church followers in developing countries as preference for a better material life on earth surpasses deferred celestial expectations.
On the European front, historical animosities still exist in the Western Balkans, notably in Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, often displayed in fierce competition between Islam and Christianity's two variants, Catholicism and Orthodoxy. And in some quarters in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, to name a few, there is inter-faith tension. Ireland and Ulster will be tuned in.
Meanwhile, European and North American Catholics will try to resolve the disputes within the Church on orthodoxy and modernity, and social issues emanating from rapid values change occurring worldwide. It's still unclear if their cardinals will vote for a pontiff from the developing world or hew to a traditional Euro-centric Church leadership.
The real task at hand is for church hierarchies of both North America and Europe to assess the significance of the possible ascension of a new Pope whose ecclesiastical views and vision may differ from Benedict's.
In practical terms, a change in orientation of Vatican leadership could have a positive temporal impact on its laity and globally. If the Vatican continues to readjust its moral compass, the church could position itself on the world stage for a purposeful and sustained ecumenical dialogue with all faiths, especially moderate Islam.
The world focuses on shifts of prominent personalities and power distribution. From a policy standpoint, major powers may interpret the selection of a Pope as both promising and problematic. In such an eventuality undue caution over this sudden and qualitative change would narrow potentially fruitful policy options and initiatives.
Jamaican-born Earle Scarlett is a former US diplomat who has analysed and reported on religion and politics in postings in, Cameroon, Brazil (twice), Philippines during the overthrow of President Marcos, ex-Yugoslavia just before the war, post-war Bosnia, and was Charge d'Affaires in Ireland during US presidential visits supporting the the Good Friday Agreement.