Black smoke. And six burning questions as Day #1 ends.

As you know, no pope today. I don’t think too many folks are surprised by that news. My own guess, based on little more than, well, guesswork, is that it will be three or four days. I’m prepared to be completely wrong on that count. Luckily, I have a deep well of experience to draw upon in being wrong about matters big, small, and non-quantifiable. 

Burning question #1: Is there a copyright on the phrases, “shroud of secrecy” and “shrouded in secrecy”? If not, I need to file for one right away so I can retire in comfort before this conclave is over. I suppose it could be one of several different drinking games (oops, it’s Lent, never mind) or bingo games (that’s better). Seriously, I wonder if some of these secular news anchors (I’ve been watching FOX and CNN, along with EWTN) have ever considered that when someone votes in the United States, their decision is also “shrouded in secrecy”. They have no obligation to tell anyone else who they voted for, whether it be a dogcatcher, mayor, senator, or president. I know, I know, it’s part of the mystique and drama. But they would be well served to read Russell Shaw’s book, Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church, and offer a bit more light than heat.

Burning question #2: Is the general structure of conclave voting that much different, in fact, than the U.S. system of voting? Yes, and also a bit of no. Yes, obviously, because the cardinals choose the next pope from among themselves. No one else votes (not even the Holy Spirit, who guides, moves, and directs as He wills). But I’ve heard more than one talking head make noise about the need for a “more democratic Church” in which “everyone’s vote counts”, as if the U.S. presidential election doesn’t involve this thing called the “electoral college”. No, it isn’t the same thing as the “college of cardinals”, but it worth noting that the POTUS is not elected directly by the people, but by 538 electors who are from among the people. Come to think of it, each of the cardinals comes from among the people of God, the Church. And before someone rails about “old men in Rome” who pull all the levers of power (yawn), all of the laity would do well to ponder the fact that each cardinal was, at one time, a young boy or man discerning a vocation.

Burning question #3: Why is there always that one guest commentator who sounds like he or she is reading out of a “Call to Action” manual? On the plus side, the quality of commentating has, I think, been pretty decent, although I’ve heard only a small percentage of it. For instance, the commentating on FOX this morning, while the cardinals were entering the Sistine Chapel, was above average. Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center was outstanding: measured, knowledgeable, and concise. Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican, was also excellent. Shepard Smith, on the other hand, was quite annoying. His big riff is that, “setting the religious aspect aside, there are a lot of politics involved.” Like I keep saying, for some folks it is about nothing but politics, power, and personalities. How sad.

Speaking of Dr. Moynihan, he had a somewhat surprising take in his e-letter about Cardinal Sodano’s opening homily:

Sodano’s message seems to privilege acting rather than being. Sodano, in particular, stresses the role of the Pope in supporting and carrying forward “good initiatives for people and for the international community.”

Sodano sums up his message to the cardinals with this sentence: “Let us pray that the future Pope may continue this unceasing work on the world level.” This is the “signature phrase” in this homily.

Now, Sodano is the Dean of the College of Cardinals and a career Vatican diplomat. And the role of the Pope and the Church in working for peace and justice in the world is important. But that role presupposes a prior experience: the experience of encountering the risen Christ, the Savior, an experience of repentance and conversion leading to a new life in Christ which transcends the life of man in this world, an experience which includes the life of the sacraments, and the path, through self-sacrifice, toward personal holiness. The vision Sodano is sketching is of a role for the papacy and the Church as a partner with other governments and institutions in bringing about peace and justice in the world.

This vision is not wrong, but it is partial. No homily can contain everything in a few brief minutes. But in a homily only hours before the first vote of the Conclave, the lack of an emphasis on the mystical role of the Church in a process which leads ultimately (as Eastern Orthodox theology especially emphasizes) through union with Christ to the very “divinization” of man, the very sharing by man of the divine life, is a lack and a disappointment.

It is not that the homily contains anything that is wrong, but rather that it’s vision seems so focused on the temporal sphere, on actions in this world. In this sense, it seems an opportunity missed. Here is the homily that Joseph Ratzinger gave on a similar occasion almost eight years ago.

Very interesting. Read more of Moynihan’s report here.

Burning question #4: How surreal and exciting is it to watch, on television, someone you know personally walk into the Sistine Chapel with the cardinals? Very! I don’t know any of the cardinals, but I do know a monsignor who was with them today, and I watched him walk in and out. We are almost the same age, and he was ordained a priest the same year my wife and I entered the Catholic Church. He is a fabulous priest: holy, intelligent, humble, committed, and with a great sense of humor, a true John Paul II priest. I won’t drop his name, however—not because I’m above that, but because he wouldn’t like it.

Burning question #5: Do any of those knuckleheads who constantly talk about how the “Church must change to survive!” and how the “Church must be relevant in order to stop dying!” ever stop to think: “Who am I to predict the approaching end of an institution that is 2,000 years old and has survived every form of tragedy, corruption, sin, stupidity, horror, silliness, and general craziness known to mankind?” The arrogance is breathtaking, like walking through a Montana cow pasture in springtime is breathtaking (I know; I’ve done it). And the lack of historical perspective is equally revolting, as Thomas McDonald points out in his fine post today.

On top of that, most of these “experts” (aka, dissenters) have a vision of the Church that is not only contrary to Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, it always looks suspiciously like dying, dull, and politically-correct mainline Protestant denominations. Which brings me to a little rule I’ve arrived at in recent weeks: Therefore, if any man shall present “relevance” and “being relevant” as the foundation for his ecclesiology, or hinge of his call for reform on “catching up with the times”, let him be deemed “irrelevant”, and cast into the nearest Catechism class for 6 to 12 months, until he can prove, by spoken and written word, that he knows of what he dares to addres, describe, and prescribe. One can dream, can’t he?

Burning question #6: Will we have a new pope tomorrow? Maybe! In the meantime, once you’ve read this CWR aritcle, check out this list of twenty men who could be pope, as identified by George Weigel. Good stuff.

UPDATE: Finally, be sure to read the CWR special reports by John Paul Shimek, who is writing from Rome on a daily basis, yesterday through Easter Sunday. John Paul has written for several Catholic publications in recent years, and he is working on an ecclesiastical doctoral degree in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His piece yesterday was titled, “The Young and the Conclave”, and his post today provides a great taste of what is like to be in Rome during this momentous week. 


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About Carl E. Olson 1120 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.