VATICAN CITY–As the health of Pope John Paul II erodes and, with it, the next papal election draws near, many Catholic Church officials have expressed dismay over the prevalence of negative campaigning among those vying for Catholicism's top post.

Archbishop Eugenio Vitti of Genoa greets supporters during a campaign stop in Milan.

"This papal campaign is one of the nastiest in recent memory, characterized by slander, smear tactics, and ad hominem attacks," said Catholicism Today editor Bruno DeGaetano. "Everyone knows His Holiness will soon be called to join The Heavenly Father, and there are a lot of cardinals out there who've been waiting since 1978 to run for pope, so the stakes are incredibly high."

The papal election, expected to occur in late 2001 or early 2002, has already sparked a flurry of negative campaign ads on TV.

"Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera has been archbishop of Mexico City since 1995," says the voiceover of one ad currently airing in North America. "But in that time, he twice opposed the canonization of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of Mexico's most beloved religious figures. If Our Lady isn't fit to be a saint, Cardinal Carrera, who is?" The image of Cardinal Carrera is then shown superimposed over a shadowy image of a horned, fork-tailed man holding a pitchfork.

The ad was paid for by the Committee To Elect Pope Egan, an organization that supports New York Archbishop Edward Egan.

"This is absurd," Carrera said. "I never opposed the canonization of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I merely noted that several others were at least as deserving. I'd also like to note that it's more than a little ironic that Cardinal Egan, a known consort of moneylenders and fraternizer with sodomites, should take the moral high ground against a man with a proven track record of piety like myself."

A campaign ad attacking cardinal Vittorio Maglio. The ad was paid for by the group Catholics For Ennio Antonelli For Pope.

Egan, who recently hired longtime Bill Clinton advisor Dick Morris as a consultant, denied involvement with the ads or the Committee To Elect Pope Egan.

"In the past six months, various advocacy groups, nominally in the pay of my opponents, have questioned my stance on drugs, birth control, and creationism," said Cardinal Antonio Innocenti, Archbishop of Eclano, speaking to various assembled cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica. "I resent that we must stoop to such secular levels in our quest for the papacy, and I promise that if it pleases God that I am chosen, I shall issue a papal edict banning such behavior."

Cardinal Innocenti's campaign promise isn't the only one stirring controversy in the Vatican. Archbishop Emeritus Giovanni Canestri of Genoa was recently slammed for promising to reduce confessional penances for all Catholics by at least 10 Hail Marys, 10 Novenas, and 5 Our Fathers by 2004. And, in a controversial interview in the March issue of the German magazine Stern, Archbishop Joachim Meisner of Cologne stated that, if elected pope, he would loosen the definition of a "viable fetus," allowing abortions for Catholics well into the second trimester. In the weeks since the interview's publication, Archbishop Meisner's approval rating among Catholics has doubled, prompting outrage from lesser-known cardinals.

"The backstabbing among these holy men has grown fierce," United Catholic League president Frank Donovan said. "Take Ash Wednesday just a few weeks ago. Cardinal Claudio Hummes was presiding over a live televised mass in São Paulo when, right in the middle of the recounting of the Third Station of the Cross, an unidentified man in the crowd repeatedly yelled for Hummes to 'tell them about the shame of Sister Maria.' Then the man started screaming that sodomy is a mortal sin and that he 'had pictures.' It created quite a stir, particularly when Hummes lost his temper and denied knowing any Sister Maria. After the man was apprehended and questioned, he said that a man in a red hat had promised him liquor if he yelled those things within earshot of reporters."

Other recent examples of dirty tactics include a doctored photo of Cardinal Honore appearing to drop a premature infant at a Tours clinic, the infamous "Do we really want a Pope Darmaatmadja?" TV spots, and the anti-Archbishop of Canterbury newspaper ads funded by "the Friends of Cardinal Thomas Joseph Winning of Glasgow," a nonexistent organization subsequently revealed to be a front for Desmond Connell, the Archbishop of Dublin.

Despite all the negative campaigning, Pope John Paul II expressed confidence that cooler heads will prevail when the process of choosing his successor begins.

"Back in 1978, when Pope Paul VI fell ill, I went out of my way to expose Cardinal Albino Luciani's drinking problem and predilection for impure thoughts to the Vatican Council," His Holiness told reporters. "But despite such attacks, I lost the election. Later that year, the new pope died and I was in the running once again, this time determined to run a clean race. I did, and I won. I have faith that, as I did, today's papal candidates will eventually see the wisdom of eschewing slander and sticking to the issues that matter to everyday Catholics."