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What Betting Markets Are Saying About the Next Pope

In Vatican City on Monday, the College of Cardinals will gather to decide on when to hold the papal conclave to select the next pope. There are no polls of the 115 cardinals who will vote in the conclave, and FiveThirtyEight is not making any predictions. But plenty of others are — notably, bookies and bettors.

Betting on the papal succession goes back centuries. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV forbade Catholics from betting on the election of a pope or the length of a pope’s term in office. According to Dr. Edward N. Peters, canonist at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, however, Gregory’s edict was part of an older system of canon law that was abrogated in 1918 (which is not to say the Catholic Church would now recommend wagering on the next pope).

During the last conclave, in 2005, the oddsmakers did well. One day before Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, Frank Delaney, an Irish novelist and journalist, wrote in The New York Times, “if the smart money is telling it right, the next pope will be one of the following three men” — Joseph Ratzinger, Carlo Martini or Jean-Marie Lustiger.

This time around, international bookies like Paddy Power in Ireland have set odds on roughly 90 candidates, according to a list of betting lines compiled by (betting on the pope is illegal in the United States). Most of those candidates are long shots, and some are beyond long shots (including Bono, Oprah Winfrey and Lance Armstrong).

But at the top of the list, the bookmakers’ favorites are largely in line with analyses by Vatican experts. compiled the odds from 13 bookies. Here is a list of those odds — converted into probabilities and averaged — for the top 25 contenders as of 10:30 p.m. Sunday.

Source: (odds converted to probabilities and averaged).

The odds may well change — and there is certainly no guarantee that any of the oddsmakers’ favorites will actually become the next pope — but currently, four of the top six contenders are from Italy, including Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, who leads the list with an average betting line implying a 23 percent chance of becoming pope. The high ranking of Italian cardinals should not be a surprise. While neither of the last two popes was Italian, before Poland’s John Paul II was elected in 1978 the last non-Italian pope was Adrian VI of the Netherlands, who was elected in 1552.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, at 22 percent, is right behind Cardinal Scola. Cardinal Turkson may have hurt hist chances, however, by giving a recent interview to The Daily Telegraph of London that was seen by some as presumptuous.

Still, at a time when the Catholic Church is receding in Europe and expanding in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Cardinal Turkson would fulfill the calls from many Catholics for a pope from the “Global South.” In 1910, according to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Catholics lived in Europe. By 2010, Europe’s share of the global Catholic population had shrunk to 24 percent.

Two Americans are in the top 25. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston ranks at No. 13, with a 4 percent chance of being elected. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York comes in at No. 16, with a 3 percent chance.

The cardinals might also factor the age of a prospective pope into their decision. An examination of the ages of recent popes by Jimmy Akin at the National Catholic Register suggests that the cardinals may prefer a pope in his late 60s. The oddsmakers seem to agree with this; the average age of the contenders in the top 25 is 70, and the average age of the top 10 prospective popes is 68.

Mr. Akin also wrote, however, that the resignation of the 85-year-old Benedict could push cardinals to pick a younger pope this time. If that does happen, Cardinal Peter Erdo, 60, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, might be a good bet (No. 8; 7 percent chance). Or the cardinals could be drawn to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, who, at 55, is the youngest cardinal in the top 25 (No. 14, 4 percent chance).

On the other hand, the precedent of Benedict’s resignation could spur the conclave to pick an older pope, knowing that — should he become unable to do the job — he could resign. That would be good news for Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria (5 percent, No. 12) and Cardinal Renato Martino of Italy (2 percent, No. 25), both 80 and the oldest contenders among the bookmakers’ top 25.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.