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Demythologizing conclaves

Four myths about papal elections addressed, debunked, and corrected.

Pope Francis’s recent announcement that he will create 21 new cardinals on August 27, 16 of whom would vote in a conclave held after that date, set off the usual flurry of speculations about the shape of the next papal election. Much of that crystal ball-gazing was less than useful, based as it was on numerous myths about conclaves. Demythologizing those tropes will, I hope, function as a stabilizer, as the waters surrounding the Barque of Peter will likely get more turbulent before the next conclave meets in the Sistine Chapel beneath the stern gaze of Christ the Judge.

Myth #1: A pope who names a significant percentage of the cardinals who elect his successor thereby determines the succession. Not true.

In 1878, the cardinal-electors were all nominees of either Gregory XVI or Pius IX; they elected Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci who, as Leo XIII, took the Church in a very different direction than his two immediate predecessors. In 1903, 61 of the 62 cardinal-electors who chose Pope Leo’s successor had been named by the man who, over 25 years, launched the Leonine Revolution and Catholicism’s engagement with modern culture and politics — cardinals who might have been expected to elect a man in Leo XIII’s image. Instead, after an interfering veto cast by that paladin of contemporary Catholic integralists, the Habsburg emperor, they elected Giuseppe Melchiore Sarto, who as Pius X firmly applied the brakes to Leo’s bolder initiatives.

In 1958, the cardinal-electors were all nominees of Pius XI and Pius XII, and it was widely assumed that the next pope would be in that line (Pius XII, as Eugenio Pacelli, having been Pius XI’s Secretary of State). Instead, the cardinal-electors chose an elderly placeholder, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. As John XXIII, he led the Church into an ecumenical council that both Pius XI and Pius XII had considered summoning before rejecting the idea; the rest is the history of our Catholic moment.

In 2013, the overwhelming majority of electors had been created cardinals by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The man they chose, who took the unprecedented papal name Francis, has quietly but determinedly dismantled the legacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in numerous respects.

Myth #2: He who enters the conclave a pope leaves the conclave a cardinal. Not true.

In 1878, Leo XIII was chosen quickly, which suggests that he must have been very papabile before the conclave. Giacomo Della Chiesa, the cardinal-archbishop of Bologna and a veteran papal diplomat, was certainly papabile entering the wartime conclave of 1914, although it took a bruising struggle to get him elected. Just about everyone who knew anything expected Eugenio Pacelli to succeed Pius XI (including Pius XI), and he was indeed rapidly chosen. Giovanni Battista Montini was certainly very papabile in 1963, in part because many cardinal-electors had regarded him as the logical successor to Pius XII in 1958; but for some yet-unexplained reason, Montini, though archbishop of Milan, was not a cardinal when Pius XII died.

For those free of prejudices and appropriately skeptical of Italian media fantasies, Joseph Ratzinger entered the conclave of 2005 very papabile, and left the conclave as pope after brief balloting. Similarly, in 2013, those with real sources (which usually do not include Italian newspapers) knew that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, was a prime contender, and his election after a brief conclave was no surprise to them.

Myth #3: A lengthy, contentious conclave leads to a disempowered pontificate. Not true.

Giacomo Della Chiesa, Achille Ratti, and Karol Wojtyla were all elected after rather lengthy conclaves; moreover, the conclaves of 1914 and 1922 were rife with contention, as the cardinals continued to battle over the legacy of the Leonine Revolution. Yet Benedict XV, Pius XI and John Paul II were all great popes who made significant contributions to the Church. The lesson? A long conclave can produce a considered, thoughtful result.

Myth #4: The only cardinals who count are the cardinals who actually vote. Not true.

Since Paul VI reformed conclave procedures, only cardinals who have not reached their 80th birthday when the conclave opens can vote. However, all cardinals participate in the General Congregations of cardinals between a pope’s death or abdication and the immurement of the conclave. And they can have a real effect, as Britain’s Cormac Murphy-O’Connor proved by his advocacy of the Bergoglio candidacy in 2013. With over-80 cardinals of great moral authority like Francis Arinze, Wilfred Fox Napier, George Pell, Camillo Ruini and Joseph Zen participating, the discussions in the next General Congregations can be similarly influential.

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About George Weigel 410 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. So what is so insightful regarding conclaves from George Weigel? At the last one he got all giddy over how brilliant the Cardinals were to respond to Bergoglio’s observation that the Church is on a continuous mission. Like there is anyone who doesn’t know this. Every child preparing for a first Communion could have made this self-evident observation. Instead, we ended up with a Pope whose “mission” has been to call the Deposit of Faith a dead ideology, insult God by denying immutable truth, and indulge unrelenting insults of Catholics who actually desire to be Catholic, something holy and prayerful Cardinals could have predicted had they troubled themselves to make the slightest effort.

  2. Where did Weigel fish for the wild and mythical tropes alleged as the basis for misunderstanding papal conclaves? Oh oracle! Please clear the water made muddy by shifty fish full of error, ignorance, and myth. Where may we find those fish?

  3. If the reader is familiar with the first unabridged copy of Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer [the second edition appeared immediately after the discontinuation of the first, which contained incriminating indication of illegal canvassing by Archbishop Murphy O’Connor and others] they could run with the “real effect, as Britain’s Cormac Murphy-O’Connor proved by his advocacy of the Jorge Bergoglio candidacy in 2013”. That a mouthful the size of a humpback whale.
    Except for Cardinal Kasper, the notorious St Gallen Group is demised. But like a bad dream a replacement, less secretive, though putatively more powerful is in place perhaps a restoration of the original by Pope Francis. This array can be called the ‘McCarrick Consortium’ consisting of Americans Cardinals Cupich, Farrell, McElroy [Farrell and McElroy were closely associated with McCarrick the first by proximity the second by support], Tobin, Gregory and added Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich SJ. Farrell prefect for the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, was named Camerlengo by Francis 2019. Camerlengo holds a key position in papal conclaves. Farrell was aware of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse allegations at Metuchen and roomed [same residence] with McCarrick when assisting him in Washington. Then we have Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and the McCarrick abuse allegations scandal and alleged coverup by Francis.
    Myths exist George Weigel makes a well informed, documented case for the cardinalate appointment myth. Although he admits however briefly retired Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s advocacy of the Argentine Great Reformer. That 2013 event nevertheless exploded the myth. With these well seasoned apparent children of the original St Gallen Mafia, the McCarrick Consortium strategically placed the question is whether the myth will again collapse? I pray George Weigel is correct in his analysis.

  4. All the Popes (Pius XII to Francis) of my time have been faithful Vicars of Christ and I believe that all those conclaves – whatever their makeup – have done us well. There is no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave us does work mysteriously in the Church. Regardless of our not-to-wise thoughts and assumptions, this will always be the case

  5. Meiron and Morello,
    About the fish thing…With the corruption of language, and much else, we are now back to slogans and symbols. And back to the bumper-sticker fish used by early Christians as meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” A mouthful, that, as the first letter of each word translates into the Greek “fish.”

    Too bad that later we abandoned fishless Fridays—as part of the plausibility structure which each week reinforced our shared Catholic faith and life. Today, part of the “muddy waters” (Meiron) is the fact that, as the Austrians say, “A fish rots from the head down.”

    So, from the suspect list (assembled by Fr. Morello) perhaps catacomb Catholics of today should invent a new acronym from the first letters of the American “heads” (Tobin, Gregory, Cupich, McElroy, Farrell). Any ideas?

    How about bringing back meantless Fridays: TGCMF? Thank God Catholics Munch on Fish!

  6. I wish to disagree with George Weigel on his first point.

    While I generally would fully agree with his assessment, I disagree that this will apply to the next conclave. The reason is that Francis has been appointing progressive ideologues to the College of Cardinals. This type of cardinal places ideology above people, Church, and God, and they can not be reasoned with.

    We will need to do our best to be persuasive. Nevertheless, I feel that we will need an action of the Holy Spirit to overcome this. This will require much prayer and fasting to expel this evil.

    • “This type of cardinal places ideology above people, Church, and God”

      Actually, Steve, these Cardinals place ideology at the bottom. For them, it is God, Church and people (for whom Jesus sacrifices his life) that are of upmost importance.

  7. George says that in 1958, the cardinal-electors were all nominees of Pius XI and Pius XII, and so it was widely assumed that the next pope would be in that line. Instead, the cardinal-electors chose an elderly placeholder, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Whereas, there is no doubt that Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Mario Bergoglio were likely to be chosen, but they were among a group of other likely candidates. So, it could have been anyone in that list. And none would have been a surprise.
    I do believe that, in our Lord’s Church, his Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, unnoticed and unfelt, to ensure that Peter’s successor is influenced by him. Was not our first Pope chosen because Jesus recognized the presence of God in him?

  8. “This will require much prayer and fasting to expel this evil.”

    This is surely a gross overstatement, to label people one disagrees with as “evil.”

    In fact, bishops across ideological lines have shown themselves weak and sinful. Some have engaged in active sex lives. Others have been painfully slow to limit predators among their brother priests. Likewise they have been spiritual heroes as well.

    When we look at bishops and cardinals, why not turn our gaze away from Napa Valley and to ordinary parishioners who experienced them as parish pastors? Were they good confessors? Did they give good counsel to the sick, the troubled, the engaged, the grieving, and the elderly? Was their leadership so effective that when they went to a new assignment, the parish they left behind, the people, continued good and fruitful work? That, because they could inspire other people to faith without being a YouTube influencer, a popular speaker, an internet guru?

    The guff against Bishop McElroy I just don’t get. Clearly, he was favored by two archbishops Pope Benedict regarded: Niederauer and Levada. Maybe a non-culturewarrior bishop can indeed be talented enough to have a 0.8% influence in choosing the next pope. And someone being evil because they disagree with you? Get real. Time to get off the CWR website, take your Democrat neighbor to a bar, buy the first round, and have a real meeting of minds.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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  3. The ‘Message’ of McElroy’s Red Hat, Communion Breakfast is a Tradition Worth Reviving, and More Great Links! - JP2 Catholic Radio

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