Stop Gambling on Pope and Have a Little Faith

Kirsten Salyer writes about consumer culture for Bloomberg View and is the site's engagement editor. She has also written for Condé Nast Traveler, Texas Monthly and Houston Community Newspapers. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and international studies from Northwestern University.
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Think you can predict the next pope? Want to bet?

Voting for the next pope began yesterday when 115 cardinals went behind the locked doors of the Vatican's papal conclave. They'll vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon until they reach a two-thirds majority of 77 votes. While the world's 1.2 billion Catholics wait for the white smoke signal from the Sistine Chapel indicating His Holiness has been chosen, the Internet's gamblers are weighing the odds.

Since Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, websites such as Oddschecker.com and PaddyPower.com have offered the chance to bet on the next pope's identity, where he'll be from and what name he will choose. Going into yesterday's first vote, the favorites included Italian Cardinals Angelo Scola and Tarcisio Bertone and Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson. By Tuesday night, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil was just behind the first-place Scola, according to Paddy Power's odds. (The odds aren't as favorable for rock star Bono or former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.)

As of March 8, more than $450,000 in bets on the next pope had been placed on Paddy Power, CNN reports. The Irish bookmaking site calculates the final pot will be in the millions.

Gambling on the papal election process isn't new: In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV forbade Catholics from betting on papal elections, an edict that was repealed in 1918. Today, it's illegal to bet on the pope in the U.S., and the love of easy money (aka the root of all evil) isn't exactly endorsed by the Catholic Church.

Regardless of the moral or monetary considerations, it's not an easy call. Not even Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog, who accurately predicted the 2012 election and even came up with a method to forecast Oscar winners, is willing to make a papal prediction.

As Bernhard Warner at Bloomberg Businessweek explains, it's much harder to predict a pope than a president. There are no polling data, for one thing. The pope also has to be elected by a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority. And then there's the fact that historical voting data from the cardinals isn't easy to come by. Sixty-seven, or 58 percent, of the 115 cardinals voting in this conclave are first-time voters.

So should we really make choosing the pope just another sport? This may just be one time to put aside the mathematical models and have a little faith.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.