The election of a new Roman Pontiff is always an historical moment of consequence, especially under the rare circumstances of the previous Pontiff's abdication. I've been reading John Allen's series on the papabile with great interest. As an Episcopal priest, my interest is in assessing the prospects for change in the Roman Catholic Church. While some of the prospective candidates would be much like their immediate predecessors, some could open up the possibility of genuine change in the next decade.
Here are my list of potential changes that we could see if the "right" person is elected, in order of likelihood:
1. At least some forms of contraception are approved for married couples.
Even some of the most conservative African bishops are realizing the need for the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection. There would be widespread support for this, and it would make many of the laity less conflicted about their conformity to church teaching while improving the health prospects for women especially around the globe. Remember that many of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics are poor women in third world countries.
2. Divorced Catholics would be allowed to receive Holy Communion.
While this would be resisted by some hard-liners, a Pope who is really concerned about evangelization and "re-evangelization" of lapsed Catholics would have to see this as low-lying fruit in terms of making the Roman Church more welcoming.
3. Women are ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons.
This would be a first step towards the full equality of women in all the orders of ministry within the Roman Catholic Church. There is a great deal of historical precedent here, going back to the New Testament. It would allow people to get used to seeing women in clerical garb, and would make it easier to advance them to serious responsibilities within diocesan and Vatican departments. There is talk already - even among Cardinals - about the need to include women more in leadership. Why not start here?
4. Roman Catholic priests are allowed to marry.
I think this is even less likely than women deacons, because of the financial implications of having to provide adequate compensation, housing, and health benefits for clergy families. Even so, it isn't impossible. We might see the celibacy requirement reserved to bishops, much as in the Orthodox Churches.
I don't think we are going to see changes in regard to teaching on sexual morality, especially hot button issues like abortion and marriage equality for same-sex couples. But we might see a different tone: "yes, they are sinners, like all of us, but we must reach out to them in love" rather than "they are intrinsically morally disordered."
One thing to watch for is the tipping point at which any of the above changes precipitate a serious schism, as conservative Catholics bolt the Roman Catholic Church for some other body more to their liking. Would we see the kind of realignment that is occurring in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of women and the welcoming of gay and lesbian people into the life of the Church?
The Holy Spirit blows where She will - even through the College of Cardinals. She might just surprise us.