Papal Conclave 2013
March 4, 2013

The Catholic Church may be a dramatically declining force in Ireland but the conclave still matters. Whomever is elected will make comments which will shape everything from how his Church deals with the inevitability of same-sex marriage across much of the planet to how it campaigns on women’s reproductive issues to poverty and how it reacts to wars, etc.So it remains an important election that will have repercussions worldwide and define the contribution of a player on the world stage. (Whether it should be a player on the world stage is a different matter. The reality is however that it is.)I have been looking into the history of papal conclaves. One thing that comes across is how so many of the presumptions being made in the media about conclaves are wrong. (No surprise there. Commentary in the media these days rarely let facts or research get in the way of their opinions.)

A couple of possible useful pointers are out there:

1. John Paul II made a dramatic, and many at the time said foolhardy, change in the process of electing popes by indicating that after a significant number of failed attempts to reach the 2/3rd threshold to elect a pope, a pope can be elected by a majority. That undid a millennium of rules. Some of the media (not many, but some) refer to the impact of this change. In fact Benedict XVI changed it back. So the winner needs 2/3rd, a difficult target to reach.

2. The Curia, that effectively governs the Church, has about 1/3rd of the cardinals. With some non-curial cardinals not at the conclave, that means that the curia can block a candidate it doesn’t like, but not elect the one it wants. In practice the curia is highly unlikely to get all its cardinals voting the one way. But the sheer size of the curial block makes it hard for someone opposed by the curia to get the job.

3. A lot of the media keep repeating how as John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointed all the voting cardinals, therefore by definition they will ensure the election of another conservative. In reality conclaves have never worked like that. A conclave made up largely of selected cardinals chosen by hardline Pope Pius XII elected the liberal John XXIII and Paul VI. A conclave largely made up of picks of John XXIII and Paul VI elected radical conservative John Paul II. Cardinals chosen by hardline intolerant Pius IX chose the liberal Leo X. The lesson is that cardinals often elect the opposite to the person who chose them and whom everyone presumed they would try to elect a carbon copy of.

4. Cardinals react very often by choosing the mirror opposite of their predecessor to fix any perceived problems. If their predecessor was young, they elect an old man. If they were old, they elect a young man. If the last guy was a media performer, they tend to elect a quiet reserved guy, and vice-versa. The choosing the age opposite of the last pope is quite striking. If they elect a young man (young for the church being in his 60s) he may be there for decades. That worries cardinals in case they make the wrong choice. So after a long pontificate they often choose an old man as a stop gap, knowing he has only a short time to live. In 1846 they elected the supposedly liberal Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti (Pius IX) aged only 54. He became extremely conservative and reigned for 32 years.

So in 1878 they decided to elect an older liberal, Cardinal Pecci, aged 68. (As people died at a youngish age, often the early 70s, in that era that counts as electing an oldish man.) They thought he might last a decade. This time the liberal pope remained a liberal, but to their frustration Pecci as Leo XIII became the “eternal father”, living to 93 and only dying in 1903 after a 25 year reign.

Having had another long-reigning pope in Pacelli (Pius XII) they went for an old guy in Roncalli (John XXIII). He was shortlived, in fact even shorter than expected when like most of his siblings he died of stomach cancer but brought about a revolution. After the elderly John they elected a relatively young guy, Montini, (Paul VI). They went for a 65 year old in Luciani (John Paul I) as Paul’s reign, at fifteen years, was reasonable length – not too short and not too long, so the cardinals didn’t feel it necessary to go for someone very old or very young.

Luciani however couldn’t manage the strain of the job and was way out of his depth, added to by poor health. So they went for the uber healthy Wojtyła, a 58 year old keep fit fanatic into hiking, jogging, weight lifting and mountain climbing. He reigned for 26 years. So the cardinals next elected the oldest pope in 3 centuries, Ratzinger (Benedict XVI).

5. Predictions of favourites are usually worthless. Very few favourites win. So Paddy Power bets may be a bit of craic, but not of any value. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, John XXIII, John Paul I and John Paul II never went to the conclave as favourites. Most of them didn’t feature even in the list of long shots. Pacelli (Pius XII) was a shoo-in in 1939, as was Montini in 1963. Ratzinger was a likely but not certain winner in 2005. But for every 1 favourite winner there are 3 unexpected and 3 ‘who the hell is that?’ outcomes. The adage is that those ‘those who go in as pope (i.e, the certainty) come out as a cardinal.’

6. Voting can be a bit erratic with, as one winner put it, candidates bobbing up and down in the votes like peas in a pot of boiling water. Four votes are held a day. Over the votes a cardinal may keep climbing up until he is near the 2/3rds but then fade as people conclude he hasn’t the numbers and switch to someone else. Benelli very nearly did October 1978, coming within 9 votes of the required majority. Siri lead at the start in 1958.

6. Geography matters. The Church is growing massively in Africa but there doesn’t appear to be enough of a block to deliver an African pope. Turkson has also talked himself out of the running. He was ridiculously big headed and indiscreet talking about himself as a potential pope and that goes down like a lead balloon with many cardinals. Roncalli (John XXIII) knew as Patriarch of Venice knew he was papabile (ie, a potential winner) in 1958 and while he didn’t go for it be didn’t do anything to kill off the chances. So he warned his nephew to stay out of Rome in the days before the conclave lest people conclude the Roncalli family were getting themselves into position to benefit from his election. Turkson did everything bar wear a teeshirt saying ‘Turkson for pope’ (some jokers in Rome but up posters with that around the city, which will have irritated the cardinals more).

North American is a possibility. But they may be uneasy electing someone from a superpower. South America may be a strong possibility. But would the European curia really be comfortable with someone from South America that may be alien to them? Remember the big voting numbers for the curial block. Don’t rule out another European, maybe even an Italian. They know how the system works and the curial block would back them. Europe will have 60 votes – 59 with the absence of O’Brien. It is a long way short of the 77 needed, but closer than the 53 present (1 absent) from North America plus South America plus Asia plus Africa. It is also unlikely the Americas plus Asia plus Africa will agree on a candidate. They are more likely to have rivals in the field.

Europe may also be reluctant to pass on the papacy for another reason. Catholicism is in severe decline in Europe. They may fear a non-European would not pay enough attention to the problem in Europe. Vanity may also come to play. They may feel that the papacy is theirs. The problem with giving it away or letting it be taken is that they may never get it back. Ancient sees that by tradition would get a red hat (Milan, Venice, Florence, Brussels, Edinburgh, Armagh, etc) could find themselves no longer getting them with the red hats being given instead to sees in Africa or South America or Asia. 99 years ago, in the 1914 conclave, 50% of the cardinal voters were Italian. Now it is 22.6%. A non-European might decide that Italy should only get one or two cardinals, like other states – at a stroke dis-empowering the Catholic Church in Europe in future conclaves.

So what does all this suggest?

Firstly, don’t presume that because the cardinals were chosen by John Paul II and Benedict XVI that they will elect another conservative. They often choose the exact opposite.

Secondly, look for someone who is the opposite, age-wise, to his predecessor. Benedict was the oldest in 300 years, so there is a strong chance they will elect a sixty-something or early seventy-something. Nobody around Benedict’s age on election or older is likely to be considered. The one caveat is that Benedict followed the second longest reigning pope in history. That may still be an issue in so far as they may not want another really long pontificate. So a fifty-something is unlikely to be chosen. They probably will go for someone in their late 60s.

Thirdly, look for a choice to balance the perceived deficiencies of their predecessor. John Paul and Benedict weren’t great administrators and the administration went to the dogs. That suggests they may want to find someone who is able to sort out the mess in the curia. So the next pope’s number 1 characteristic may be that they are a hands on guy in administration who gets the mess in the Curia sorted. So they may prefer a guy who spends more time behind the desk and less on the road. But they are unlikely to want someone too much of a curial insider.

So the characteristics of the next pope may well be someone in their late 60s or early 70s, an experienced administrator able to sort out the mess in the curia left by John Paul II and not able to be cleared by Benedict XVI, someone in good health, conservative but not aggressively so, and a European, and probably someone not featuring much in the predictions of who is ‘favourite’. So watch out for people like perhaps Comastri (69), an Italian, Duka (69), a Czech, Dziwisz (73), a Pole and close aide to John Paul II, Filoni (66), an Italian in the Curia with diplomatic and organisational skills, Puljić (67) of Bosnia Hertzegovina, Ravasi (70), an Italian in the Curia, Ricard (68), France. One worth watching is Schönborn of Austria (and Irish descent) (68), who is popular, moderate, a reformer and has a strong record on dealing well with clerical child abuse.

They may opt for older but after the sheer length of John Paul II’s papacy they are unlikely to opt for anyone younger, just in case they are the wrong person and they are stuck with them for 20 or 30 years.

One final thing to watch: don’t presume that because recent conclaves were over in a day or two that this one will be too. With so many problems in the Church, and so many large power blocs, I would not be surprised if this was one of the longer recent conclaves. Most recent conclaves seem to have been around 2-3 days. One early in the 20th century lasted for five. 

SimonSays    4 March  2013
“Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.” Blaise Pascal.

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