April 09, 2005

Thoughts On The Papal Election of 2005

Pope John Paul the Great, the Pilgrim Pope, was buried yesterday. The world now awaits two things sure to come -- the late pontiff's elevation to sainthood and the election of his successor.

Canonization will take years, but the conclave is only nine days away, on April 18. The Vatican has imposed a "gag order" on the cardinals, so we won't be hearing from the princes of the church until sometime after April 20. That doesn't mean that they will not be talking among themselves, though, and some unofficial collations will likely exist by next Monday. I've offered some viewpoints on candidates, but feel there is still more to be said.

1) The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Los Angeles Times offers these statistics on the breakdown of the College of Cardinals by region, compared to the 1978 conclaves that elected John Paul I and, less than two months later, John Paul II.



Latin America
North America
11 12

Africa 10


As you can see, then, not much has changed in that superficial balance of power.

2) The more things stay the same, the more they change. The same statistics quoted above show a different picture if you do the country breakdown.

Country1978 2005
Italy25 20

United States
9 11
France 7

Germany5 6
Spain4 6

Mexico1 4

Those European cardinals are much more spread out. As these totals show, the largest delegations have a smaller percentage of the total number of electors. That will make it difficult for the Italians to get the papacy back, and more likely that the new pope will not be a European.

3) When the conclave starts on Monday, April 18, expect it to be done by Friday -- and possibly as early as Wednesday.

Year Days Ballots Elected
190347 Pius X

1914 3 10Benedict XV
1922 4 14 Pius XI
1939 2 3 Pius XII
1958 4 11 John XXIII
1963 3 6 Paul VI
1978 2 4 John Paul I
1978 3 8 John Paul II

We've been watching this pope slowly die for the last several years. The question of succession has been on the minds of these cardinals during all this time. All but three (one of whom, Cardinal Sin of Manila, is on kidney dialysis and unlikely to attend the conclave) were appointed by John Paul II, and most share his views on doctrinal matters. The issue here, other than nationality/ethnicity/region, is likely to be how much the next pope will intervene in the affairs of the local church vs. how much freedom will local bishops have in running their dioceses.

4) How long a papacy do these cardinals think the next pope should have? I cannot predict that. If they look for a transitional pope, I still lean towards their selection of Cardinal Ratzinger, whose major task will be dealing with those tasks the late pope left undone during the last years of his infirmity. While I doubt that a young pope is on the agenda, I could easily see Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, 60, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria as the next pope if the cardinals move that direction. If a pontificate of about a decade is sought, I suspect that we will see a cardinal around age 70 (2/3 of the voting cardinals are 70 or older) elected -- perhaps the 68-year-old Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, an Argentinian of Italian heritage who would also become the first Jesuit to hold the papacy. In him we would get the simple holiness of John Paul I (he lives in a small apartment rather than the episcopal residence, cooks for himself and takes the bus to work daily) and the conservative theological and intellectual brilliance that marked John Paul II.

5) An African pope? Speculation will continue to swirl around Francis Cardinal Arinze, but the African cardinals have downplayed that speculation.

"Psychologically and spiritually, the West is still not ready for a black pope," Cardinal Bernard Agre told reporters in his native Ivory Coast.

As an American, I am inclined to disagree with that point of view -- but it may well be that this is true of the 50% of the College of Cardinals who are from Europe. Many of the cardinals can remember when Africa was mission territory and its bishops were European, and it may be that we need another generation to move past such an archaic viewpoint. If that proves to be the case, expect the Africans to vote with the Latin Americans -- though given Arinze's many years of curial experience in Rome, it could well be that the Italians and the rest of the Europeans would embrace him as one of their own.

6) We could also see another pope emerge from an oppressed church. Some speculation has revolved around Jaime Lucas Cardinal Ortega y Alamino of Havana, Cuba. At 68, he is the right age. Being from Cuba, he certainly falls in an important bloc of cardinals. He was imprisoned by Castro in the 1960s, and is an outspoken human rights advocate. What a message to send to the oppressed church in Cuba, China, and Vietnam, as well as in the Muslim world.

Some may find these words sacrilegious. After all, this isn't a political game, but a process directed by the Holy Spirit. But I do not intend to discount that fact -- after all, the Holy Spirit works though the Cardinal Electors, and influences their hearts and minds. I am simply engaging in speculation on how that process may play out.

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