When hundreds of thousands of global justice campaigners flocked to Genoa in the summer of 2001 to protest at the G-8 summit of major industrialized nations, the found an unlikely ally in the powerful and respected cardinal of Milan.

While many influential figures in the Italian political and business spheres sought to dismiss the labor, farm, environmental and human rights activists who confronted authorities in Genoa with mass demonstrations that mirrored the protests two years earlier at the World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi wrote in a widely-circulated Catholic newspaper that, “There is a clear conflict between capital and labor, and the ones who are suffering aren’t the industrialists but the men and women who are working.”

As the 115 elector cardinals of the church gather this week to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Tettamanzi has emerged as a leading contender. He is not the frontrunner – most observers assign that designation to German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a far more conservative player on issues of church doctrine and economics – but Tettamanzi is very much in the running. (Some observers have identified him as the chief rival to Ratzinger.) So, too, are several other cardinals who have been in the forefront of raising economic justice issues.

Though the electorate is small and uniquely homogenous in character, the competition to succeed John Paul II is in many senses like any other election campaign for a coveted position. It is beginning with a wide field, which will eventually be winnowed to a few candidates. Those candidates will, as is true in any campaign, be judged on the basis of a variety of factors, including their personal attributes and their ideology.

Considering the makeup of the College of Cardinals, which was defined by the appointments of the socially-conservative late pope, there can be no more than faint hope for the election of a modernizing liberal reformer who will move the church toward the ordination of women or more moderate stances regarding contraception and gay rights.

But on the economic justice front – which, along with opposition to preemptive war is a zone where the church was frequently at odds with the world’s most powerful leaders and nations – the competition becomes more intriguing.

For instance, Cardinal Tettamanzi is no more liberal than the man he hopes to succeed when it comes to social issues; indeed, he helped put together “The Gospel of Life,” a papal encyclical that spelled out the church’s opposition to birth control, abortion and euthanasia. But the son of a northern Italian factory worker has been an outspoken and generally progressive voice in debates about globalization.

That stands him in stark contrast to Cardinal Ratzinger, who appears to be a bit more conservative than John Paul II on issues of church doctrine and is dramatically more conservative on economic issues. Ratzinger helped to organize and carry out the Vatican’s the purge of the left-wing Liberation Theology movement in the late 1970s and 1980s – going so far as to shut progressive seminaries that were teaching priests to actively take the side of the poor in struggles with corporate and political power.

Even more progressive than Tettamanzi on these issues is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who at 62 is one of the youngest and most dynamic contenders. The son of a Honduran political activist who was jailed and tortured by that country’s U.S.-backed dictatorship, Cardinal Rodriguez has maintained a long a close friendship with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez., the Peruvian theologian who was an architect of the Liberation Theology philosophy and movement.

Well regarded by John Paul II, Cardinal Rodriguez has often been the Vatican’s point man on economic justice issues. As the leader of the church’s drive for debt relief for the world’s poorest nations, the Honduran cardinal delivered petitions demanding the easing of the debt burden, which contained 17 million signatures, to the 1999 G-8 meeting in Moscow. The decision of the G-8 to cancel $70 billion in international debts owned by poor countries was seen by many as a response to the lobbying of Cardinal Rodriguez and his allies in and out of the church hierarchy.

Somewhat more moderate than the other contenders on issues such as contraception, Cardinal Rodriguez is seen as something of a long shot, as is Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo of Portugal, another moderate.

But, it is important to note, Cardinal Rodriguez is no more of a long shot than was Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1978. And Cardinal Rodriguez is every bit the intellectual powerhouse and dynamic personality that Cardinal Wojtyla was when he made the move from Krakow to the Vatican.