Setting an official date for anything in the Eternal City—especially for this most unusual papal conclave—is a small miracle in itself. Convoking 117 jet-setting cardinal electors from six continents and 50 different countries for a momentous decision all in one single room certainly is not easy. A lot of time and patience are required.
Nonetheless, late last Friday all the cardinals were finally present in Paul VI Hall (less two who were excused) and unanimously voted to schedule the conclave to begin tomorrow afternoon.
Quite frankly, the extra time Vatican journalists—vaticanisti—and papal scholars have enjoyed has been good for some things and bad for others.
The entire month since Benedict’s surprise resignation announcement has proven advantageous for dusting off old 2005 flash cards of cardinals and updating database profiles to scrutinize potential papabili, cardinals who are considered to have the right stuff to become pope.
But the month the vaticanisti and papal scholars have enjoyed to intensify their studies of the Church’s 117 electable princes has often led to over-analysis and crowding out the mysterious inspiration the Holy Spirit. Who knows if the cardinals’ own brain-trusts have been working too hard and for too long as well.
By now we have heard every hypothesis from scores of budget-pinching and rookie mass media stumbling on Piazza San Pietro’s uneven cobblestones. They multitask as correspondent-producer-fixers and are armed with the latest generation of smartphones, tablets, and other species of espresso-stained electronic gadgets that replace expensive backroom media techs.
You wonder when they have time to actually research their cases, much less post and broadcast their news. But indeed time—moltissimo tempo—they have had.
They have spoken of the “Bergoglio comeback” (apparently he was a runner-up in 2005) and the mightily leveraged “Italian block” that will surely vote in one of their own to fill a 35-year power vacuum.
They have analyzed and lobbied for non-traditional but surely viable candidates from Latin America (Cardinal Scherer of Brazil), Africa (Cardinal Turkson of Ghana), and Asia (the “baby” 54-year-old Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines).
And lately there is a lot of intense focus on and fascination with the boisterous Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, whose backslapping jokes they love and folksy self-deprecation they just can’t get enough of.
North of the U.S. border, they are finally taking notice of the polyglot, jack-of-all-trades Cardinal Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec and current powerful prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. But like some late-night comedians, they simply imagine the Canadian reforming the Vatican Curia with a swift hockey stick and a couple of really rough body checks.
Finally, just as short sales finalize on 2012 doomsday bunkers, they have reignited this capricious real estate market with new end-times projections. They speak of a conclave that will elect a “last pope.”
Too much time has led these young vaticanisti to follow portentous clues, from a lightning bolt that struck St. Peter’s the evening Benedict XVI’s resignation was announced, to a close shave with a comet four days later and meteorites exploding across central Russia, to a small earthquake that struck below the pope emeritus’ temporary residence three days into the interregnum. A wave of paranoid secular media have now resurrected the prophecies of the obscure 12th-century monk, St. Malachy, and the better-known Renaissance oracle Nostradamus. They say Malachy’s “Petrus Romanus” prediction falls squarely with Nostradamus’ apocalyptic “black pope”. Ergo, all jittery fingers point to the popular African Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Never mind that Nostradamus probably referred to a “black-hearted one” and that Turkson will not be the only Peter sitting in the Sistine on Tuesday. There is also Cardinal Peter Erdő, the decidedly fair-skinned archbishop of Budapest, who could compete for the “last pope” job. I doubt he will be hitting the tanning beds before tomorrow.
With now more than plenty to ponder, disagree with, and be nervous about, the conclave has now all the hype of a Super Bowl week. But as long as we have still a few hours before cardinal electors cast their first ballots into silver urns, I have gathered some of today’s most serious Vatican experts for one last thought-provoking scrutiny.
Serious papal picks: Taboos, trends, and preferences
I spoke with Edward Pentin, the much sought-after vaticanista for several reputable media outlets, like the National Catholic Register, The Catholic Herald, Zenit, Vatican Radio and now the U.K.’s Sky News Television.
Never short on courage with words, I asked Pentin to take the first shot on who he foresees as the next pope.
“If pushed, I’d say Cardinal Scola has the best chances,” Pentin said. “He has a reasonably strong record of governance and, as an Italian distanced from the Vatican infighting, he’s in a better position than many to enact Curial reform. … Scola is believed to have given Benedict the idea for a New Evangelization, and some say he’s Benedict’s preferred successor.”
While the 71-year-old archbishop of Milan is not exactly what growing tides of experts are predicting in terms of much-desired youth and energy, Pentin says, “my feeling also is that cardinals are likely to play it safe, and [Scola] personifies safety and stability. But the Holy Spirit is apt to spring surprises.”
Samuel Gregg, the Australian author of The Modern Papacy and Oxford-trained research director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, sees real possibilities coming from Asia: “There are a number of well-qualified papabili from Asia-Oceania. I am a great admirer of Cardinal Pell. He has taken a Church that had embraced some of progressivism’s most inane aspects and turned it around.”
Gregg said that the conservative archbishop of Sydney “has a truly international grasp of the life and direction of the universal Church” but also that this same is true for the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who he claims “should be taken very seriously.”
Among other things, Gregg says that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith understands better than some Western bishops just how important it is to continue focusing on the liturgy.
“But in the end, I don’t think geography really matters,” Gregg says. “Nor does the Church need to embrace its own version of the contemporary disease of identity-politics. We should worry far more about a person’s holiness than about whether he comes from this or that continent.”
Recently John Allen, Jr., the veteran correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and CNN and author of All the Pope’s Men and Conclave, short-listed Cardinals Ouellet, Sandri, Scherer, and Scola during a public address at Rome’s Lay Center. However, he said this was because of limits of time and that we cannot really pick just four papabili: “The field seems fairly wide open, so while these are four men who will get a serious look, I don’t think they’re the only possibilities.”
“They’re all proven administrators, either in pastoral settings or in the Vatican, and could strike other cardinals as a good bet to clean up the perceived management problems in the Holy See,” Allen said.
Finally, among those willing to take a stab is Sandro Magister, perhaps the most respected Italian Vatican expert, whose writings for L’Espresso magazine and debates on television have had wide appeal abroad, particularly in the United States.
Magister is an admitted “Dolanista,” an Italian booster for the cardinal archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, who was the locally popular and charismatic rector of Rome’s Pontifical North American College from 1994 to 2001.
Magister—who ranks the “capacity to evangelize and toughness and courage in decision making” as top priorities for the next pope—has not hid his deep admiration for the Big Apple’s cardinal, whom he says is “a dyed in the wool Ratzingerian” whose radiant smile and charism represent the “vigor of both body and mind which Joseph Ratzinger recognized he had lost and defined as necessary for his successor.”
As the outspoken, jovial and aggressive president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan has led the American Church to become “resurgent” and would help do the same for a religiously apathetic Europe, Magister says.
“As a growth model from past decline, one looks to the Church in the United States,” Magister says. “The most recent rebirth of the Church’s vitality in France in its battle against gay marriage [owes much] to the American-style Church.”
Magister says gone are the days in which it was unthinkable for a “super power” nation to supply an electable pope, due to “the critical and combative way” Dolan has led the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “even against, whenever necessary, the political powers that be.”
Magister, like John Allen, thinks the Italian cardinals—who enjoy an advantageous majority among electors at nearly 25 percent—are not organized enough as a unit to vote in force for one of their own nationals. He has even quoted Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini as saying Dolan is his “dream candidate” and that many other Italians would back an American as pope.
Edward Pentin, however, disagrees in part with Magister. While he does not rule out that some Italian cardinals would vote for an American colleague, “Italian cardinals, especially the older ones, are no fans of American brashness and elements of American ‘cowboy culture.’ They’re not quite sure what to make of Cardinal Dolan and think some of his jokes inappropriate when dealing with serious matters related to the Church, but any real prejudice probably belongs to a small minority.”
Papal leadership: “Jesus Christ with an MBA”
Father Thomas Reese, the Jesuit author of Inside the Vatican (Harvard, 1998), spoke to me about ideal leadership qualities for a pope.
“The cardinals are looking for someone who is holy, a wise theologian, and a communicator, who can also reform the Vatican Curia,” Reese said. “In other words, Jesus Christ with an MBA.”
Reese said that no one man, as holy as he may be, will ever have “all the attributes necessary to be a perfect pope.”
“Jesus,” he said, “founded the Church and left it to [imperfect] human beings to run.”
Samuel Gregg believes brain power is a perennial concern for the cardinal electors, especially in terms of the ability to dispel heresy and many forms of secular deceit. He identified the Italian Scola, Canadian Ouellet, and Australian Pell as among those in the Sistine Chapel who “understand the scale of the challenge…and demonstrate that they possess the intellectual, pastoral, and organizational skills needed to translate this knowledge into the work of evangelizing the world in the truth of the Catholic faith.”
Gregg, a hard-line critic of the secularization of Western culture, says the next pope must act for “critical engagement” with modern culture.
“We live in a post-Enlightenment world. There’s no going back to a world before the late-17th century…And there are some good things associated with modernity.”
Gregg cites among the serious intellectual and cultural problems brought on by modernity a narrow view of reason, a consequentialist ethic, and “the use of cramped conceptions of tolerance to destroy liberty.”
Father Reese says a worrying trend is particularly evident within the Catholic Church in North America, which, while “more dynamic than the European church, also has problems.”
“One out of three people raised Catholic have left the Church, and most leave before they reach 23 years of age,” he said. The next pope should help us “figure out how to preach the Gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people in the 21st century, especially young people who are turned off by the Church.”
Edward Pentin likewise ranks “evangelizing ability” as a top skill set for the next pope, but prioritizes “orthodoxy” above such communication talent. He believes popes must get the truth right before getting out the message and convincing others of it.
Pentin says other top skills in order of priority are toughness and courage in decision-making, managerial skills, youth and energy, and Vatican experience.
For John Allen what is most needed for papal leadership are skills to stem the rising tide of attacks on religious freedom throughout the world. Allen says this involves “not just the church/state tussles in the West, such as the Obama contraception mandates, but a growing number of situations in which Christians are the primary victims of physical persecution and assault.”
He said Tuesday’s cardinal electors will also assess who among them can adequately lead a New Evangelization “in a very competitive lifestyle marketplace ” and amid biotechnological breakthroughs that “pose mind-bendingly new ethical questions” to the Church’s 1.2 billion faithful.
“Honestly,” Allen said, “no one person—not even a pope—can possibly handle such disparate challenges alone. The trick is to find someone with an eye for spotting talent, who can put the right persons into the right jobs to lead the Church forward.”
“In other words, you need a good manager, someone with a track record of doing this sort of thing at other levels…It seems to point towards a proven commodity like Scola or Schönborn or Scherer or Ouellet, not a ‘roll of the dice’ such as Tagle or Turkson.”
Samuel Gregg agrees with Allen about the need for a good Vatican manager and goes on explain that “organizational dysfunctionality” can inhibit the Church’s ability to evangelize well. “That said,” he continued, “It’s not the role of the bishop of Rome—or any bishop for that matter—to be a CEO. Our Lord didn’t commission managers or technocrats. He commissioned Apostles.”
Tough act to follow: Continuing the John Paul-Benedict legacy
When asked how his book The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church captures the great changes that began with John Paul II’s papacy and continued with his right-hand man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Allen says he thinks Benedict leaves behind “an impressive legacy as a teaching pope.”
“His reflections on the intersection of faith, reason and secular culture have laid the intellectual foundations for a successful post-modern form of Catholicism. It’ll be up to the next pope to take that teaching and turn it into practice.”
Samuel Gregg said the previous two popes “addressed these problems by naming them for what they are, and explaining how they don’t do justice to human reason and freedom, let alone God.”
Gregg says that Benedict in particular was known for his quiet nature, yet “far less has been said about his fearlessness.”
“Unlike some priests and bishops of the immediate post-conciliar generation, Joseph Ratzinger never seemed intimidated by modernity, perhaps [because] he understood its pathologies and the profound limitations of the secular mind so well…Benedict had an uncanny ability to go straight to the root of the problem, explain how it emerged, and how the Church can address these issues in ways that bring people back to the central truths entrusted by Christ to his Church.”
In any case, given the extent to which secularist assumptions and expectations have limited and corrupted our world’s vision of human flourishing, Gregg says “the next pope really has no choice but to continue along the same lines.”
Last word: Maybe not a fast election
We all know the Holy Spirit may throw Vatican experts the proverbial curve ball when the announcement “Habemus Papam!” is made to the world.
Whatever happens, all our experts have agreed the anticipated start date was strategic to allow for the conclave to conclude before March 24, Palm Sunday, when cardinal bishops are canonically required to return to their home dioceses for Holy Week and when the pope’s own diocese of Rome will need him to officiate at the sacred processions and celebrate the Paschal liturgies.
John Allen adds that the Church does not want to diminish its public image, either: “[the Cardinal electors] won’t want to drag it out too long, risking impressions of gridlock and division.”
He does sense, however, that the 2013 conclave will be more complicated than the one held in 2005: “I’m betting on a conclave longer than that one, which was over in four ballots in a day and a half.”
What Allen would place his money on is this: if an American is elected pope, he will have to push back his return-ticket date and camp out, with many more U.S. journalists joining the party.
“The Vatican will become the White House beat for the American media, which probably means that I’ll become just another American vaticanista, rather than being a big fish in a small pond.”