53. Papabili. A Short Guide Waiting for the Conclave

The outcome of a conclave can be unpredictable. Whether or not one believes that the Holy Spirit actually works in the election of the Roman pontiff, its results defy easy previsions. As an absolute monarchy, the Vatican does not normally operate according to democratic procedures. The conclave, however, is one of the few instances where each vote counts and the total amount of them (two thirds is the majority for the first 34ballots) determines history. So there is room for political maneuvering and surprises.

The Role of Benedict XVI

Having resigned from office at over 80 years of age means that Benedict XVI will be cut off from the conclave. During the conclave he will be living at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence on the hills outside of Rome. Though physically absent, his influence will be powerful in a couple of respects.

First, as a living former Pope his shadow will be a major factor in determining what the cardinals will decide. It is likely that no cardinal will vote someone that the present Pope would not himself vote. It is unlikely that the conclave will elect someone who would radically depart from Ratzinger’s trajectory, since he will still be around during and after the conclave. Following the new Pope’s election, Benedict XVI will go back to the Vatican where he will live in a former monastery inside the Vatican walls. He will be there and around. The co-habitation with the new Pope suggests that the latter will be somewhat a prolongation of the former. Without voting and without using words, Benedict XVI will have a say in the next election.

Second, his input in the conclave is evident in considering the fact that during his pontificate he has nominated about half of the 117 electors. The composition of the conclave is largely shaped by men personally chosen by Benedict XVI whom he trusted.

There are two counter-elements to be considered. One is that the conclave will not be held in the emotional atmosphere that generally follows the funerals of the previous Pope. It will be more cerebral than sentimental. The other is that, given the unprecedented decision by Benedict to resign and the shock that has caused in the curia, the conclave could be used as a showdown in the Vatican checkerboard. It is clear that Ratzinger’s weakening conditions that led to his resignations were hastened by internal fights and unresolved tensions in various Vatican departments. The conclave will have to decide what to do about them and the outcome could be surprising. Benedict surrendered to the stand-still situation, but the new Pope will have to act.

A List of Candidates

After two non-Italian Popes (the Polish Wojtyła and the German Ratzinger) is it time for an Italian one? If this is the case, then the Archbishop of Milan Angelo Scola (72) is the first and perhaps only option. The Italian candidates, however, could pay the price of a possible showdown. Many of the recent scandals (e.g. Vatileaks and the Vatican bank’s financial opaque maneuvers) originated in the Roman curia which is mainly governed by Italian prelates. Moreover, the Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone (78), himself an Italian, is part of the on-going controversy. So the poor performance of the Italian hierarchy may result in leaving Italians out of the game to wait for the next round.

Two solidly “Ratzingerian” candidates are the Archbishop of Québec Marc Ouellet (68) and the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn (68). The French-speaking Canadian Ouellet is the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and knows the Vatican machinery very well. His role of selecting the new bishops allowed him to have the pulse of the world-wide Church, though he is not a “charismatic” figure in Weberian terms. Schoenborn is a brilliant theologian that denounced some of the silences over the sex abuses scandal. His bold exposition on this issue could find resistance in some traditional circles. Adding to that, the fact that a growing number of Austrian priests is taking critical stances on the celibacy issue may falter Schoenborn’s candidacy. Another papabile in the same group is the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan (63). Historically, North-American candidates have been excluded for the simple fact that the Roman Catholic Church did not feel comfortable with the idea of having a Pope coming from a super-power of the world. This emotional and political obstacle should be overcome to give Dolan a chance.

Finally, there are three outsiders. Voices around the world repeatedly say that the time has come for a “black” Pope. Cardinal Peter Turkson (65), Ghanean, is President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a rising star in Vatican circles. A non-Western Pope would definitely come to terms with the reality of the Christian growth in the Global South and the need to move the axis of the Church toward it. In 2012, however, Turkson caused many eyebrows to raise when he launched a document evoking the creation of a global agency to preside over the world’s economy. “Does he want a Soviet-type of control over the world?”– people asked. Turning to Asia, the Archbishop of Manila (Philippines), Luis Antonio Tagle (56) is another option if the Roman Catholic would turn the page in a more radical way towards becoming a less Western institution. This smiling, apparently simple, yet engaging and charming young cardinal made a positive impression at the last Synod of Bishops for the New Evangelization and attracted immediate positive feedbacks. A middle way solution could be the Archbishop of San Paulo (Brazil) Odilo Pedro Scherer (63), the Brazilian bishop with a German name and European “heart”. Latin America is perceived as being a continent of solid Catholic traditions (like the old Europe), yet expressing the spiritual vitality of the Global South.

An Evangelical Preference?

Given the range of possible candidates, who is the more Evangelically inclined or Evangelical-friendly? This is difficult to say. Here are three criteria that could form a list of Evangelical desires for the next conclave.

First, generally speaking, those ecclesiastical figures with first-hand experience among Evangelicals in their pastoral work tend to be more inclined toward friendly relationship with non-Catholic Christians. It is true that where the Roman Catholic Church is strongly attached to the national state in a privileged position, the leaders tend to have a more “defensive” attitude and inward-looking vision. On the contrary, where the Roman Church experiences the stresses and strains of being a religious institution in the midst of other movements and in the context of a separate political power, there the Church has a more positive attitude towards religious pluralism. To the extent that the next Pope comes from a background of interaction with the plurality of Christian experiences and orientations, the better he will be among evangelicals.

Second, those who have more global perceptions of the state of Christianity surely have a better consideration of Evangelicals than those who are grounded in regional areas where Catholics have a traditional majority status. The challenges of the persecution of Christians, global poverty, and the rising secularism of the West are common concerns that allow conversations and cooperation between different Christians. A Pope who is aware of global trends and who has knowledge of the complex geography of the Christian Churches will be in a better position to appreciate the contribution of Evangelicals around the globe.

Third, some Evangelicals would naturally desire that the Pope be a Bible-focused and Christ-centered leader, less attracted by traditions and devotional practices and more inclined to promote Biblical literacy and personal faith in Jesus Christ. They would like to see a “reformer”-type of a leader, being willing to allow the Word of God to drive the Church in truth and love. In other words, a less “Roman” and a more “catholic” Pope would be the standard Evangelical preference. Other Evangelicals would think that the best Pope will be the one who declares himself redundant, being Jesus Christ the Lord of the Church and the Holy Spirit his only vicar.

Is there such a papabile out there? We shall soon see.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 4th March 2013

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