Monday, 11 March 2013

10 Things That Make This Papal Conclave So Unpredictable

by Ruth Richmond

Cardinal Tagle: a contender?
(source: Wikicommons)

The Vatican have set Tuesday, 12th March as the start of the Conclave to elect a new pope. The date was set on Friday, 8th March, as the College of Cardinals met to discuss the church’s priorities and probably its problems for the future too. There appears to be no clear front-runner (to the faithful at least, but we are always the last to know anything!) as I write this, but there can be no doubt that, in the pre-conclave meetings that took place last week, they will have a firmer idea of who the cardinals want as pope.
There is indication that some of these meetings have been fraught, with many cardinals not being able to decide on what the priorities for the church are (the teaching of the Catholic faith in schools or the sex abuse scandals), and some cardinals have asked for more discussion time as, when the actual conclave begins on Tuesday, much of it is conducted in silent prayer. No doubt the cardinals already know for whom they are going to vote, as I write. No conclave over the last hundred years has lasted longer than five days. If we start the count in 1295, when Pope Boniface VIII first required cardinals to elect a pope in a sealed room, the looming 2013 edition will be the seventy-fifth conclave in the history of the Catholic Church. At one level, therefore, it's possible to say that we've seen this show before, most recently eight years ago. In many ways, the 2013 conclave will seem identical to those that have gone before: the same procession into the Sistine Chapel, the same black and white smoke, the same "Habemus Papam" moment when the new pope has been chosen. Despite the echoes of the past, there are several unique features about this conclave that alter the politics and, perhaps, suggest a longer and more difficult process. Therefore, here are the top ten differences about the 2013 edition of the papal election (I cannot take the credit for identifying the first 9, as this goes to the very good Catholic journalist John Allen. However, the tenth one is definitely mine!).

1. Resignation, not death

The most obvious difference is that, for the first time in six hundred years, the cardinals will be electing a pope following a resignation rather than death. Procedurally, that doesn't change anything; it's the same sede vacante, the same rules for each round of balloting (known as a "scrutiny"), and so on. Psychologically, however, the contrast is enormous. When any major world leader dies, let alone a pope, the air is usually filled with tributes and outpourings of grief and affection. Simple human decency implies not speaking ill of the dead, especially while the loss is still fresh. As a result, it's more difficult for cardinals to voice criticism of the papacy that just ended -- certainly in public, and at times even among themselves. By separating the end of his papacy from the end of his life, Benedict XVI has spared the cardinals that pressure, allowing them to voice both the strengths of this pontificate but also its weaknesses. That may help them arrive at a more balanced assessment, but it could also complicate the deliberations and make it more difficult to identify candidates.

2. No clear frontrunner

Despite what you may have read, the election of Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 was not a "done deal" when they entered the Sistine Chapel to begin voting. On the other hand, the cardinals then all reported that everyone knew Ratzinger would be a strong candidate, and their pre-conclave deliberations thus had an obvious focus. They knew they had to decide whether or not they would support John Paul's doctrinal czar because nobody with eyes to see could have missed the signs of the strong support Ratzinger enjoyed. U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, considered a papal contender, said in a blog post on Friday, 8th March, that most of the discussions in the closed-door meetings covered preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, tending to Catholic schools and hospitals, protecting families and the unborn, supporting priests "and getting more of them!" "Those are the 'big issues,'" he wrote. "You may find that hard to believe, since the 'word on the street' is that all we talk about is corruption in the Vatican, sexual abuse, money. Do these topics come up? Yes! Do they dominate? No!" Despite Dolan’s utterings (I am not a fan), it is pretty likely that pre-conclave discussions were dominated by discussions regarding the reform of the curia and the sex abuse scandals, and this is reflected in the delay we saw in setting a date for the Conclave to begin.

3. The surprise factor

With his resignation, Benedict delivered a massive shock to the system, breaking with what had previously been a conviction in some quarters that, while a pope technically could resign, they really shouldn't. Having already received one huge surprise, perhaps the cardinals will be more disposed to another. For instance, they could look outside the College of Cardinals for the next pope. (The last time that happened was 1378, just fifty years before the last pope to resign.) In this climate, every wildcard scenario seems slightly more thinkable.

4. The veterans

In April 2005, there were only two cardinals who had ever participated in a conclave before, Ratzinger and William Baum of the United States, while this time there are fifty old hands. That contrast could cut one of two ways: either it will mean the cardinals will be better organized and more efficient because more of them know what it takes or the deliberations will be more protracted and fractious because fewer cardinals are willing simply to play "follow the leader."

5. The time lapse

In 2005, sixteen days passed between the death of John Paul II on April 2nd and the opening of the conclave on April 18th. Of course, it was clear that John Paul was in decline much earlier, but, given how many times he'd been through health scares before and somehow managed to soldier on, many cardinals didn't start thinking about the transition in earnest until he actually died. Most of them weren't in Rome when the pope died, either, so a few of those sixteen days were eaten up by travel. This time, however, Benedict's resignation announcement came on 11th, February, 2013, meaning the cardinals could begin thinking about what comes next from that point forward. The bottom line is that the cardinals have had a lot more time than in 2005 to prepare, to ponder various candidates, and to consult among themselves to see who appears to have support. Once again, that could mean a more streamlined process with the bugs worked out in advance; alternatively, it could mean a more protracted conclave.

6. The scandal effect

The child sex abuse crisis was already set in cement as a defining issue for Americans by 2005, but it didn't really erupt in Europe until 2010. In the meantime, the Vatican has also been hit with a number of other embarrassing episodes, such as the Vatileaks scandal and persistent allegations of financial corruption. And then we have most recently scandal involving Cardinal Keith O’Brian, Head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, whereby he admitted ‘non-specific’ sexual misconduct with priests (adults) earlier on in his career. In that context, a larger share of cardinals this time around is likely to be concerned that the new pope be perceived to have "clean hands." In practice, this may produce a sort of burden, rather than benefit, of the doubt for any candidate publicly linked to some sort of scandal. In the hothouse atmosphere of the pre-conclave period, some cardinals were likely to feel they didn’t have the time to separate truth from falsehood and may conclude that the safest thing to do is to steer clear of anyone who seems even potentially tainted.
7. Two-thirds vote

When John Paul II issued his rules for the conclave in 1996 with the document Universi dominici gregis, he included a provision allowing the cardinals to elect a pope by a simple majority rather than the traditional two-thirds majority if they were deadlocked after roughly thirty ballots, meaning seven days or so. Procedurally, the conclave of 2005 never got anywhere close to invoking that provision, since they elected Benedict XVI in just four ballots. Psychologically, however, some cardinals said afterward that everyone knew that codicil was on the books, so that, once Ratzinger's vote total crossed the fifty per cent threshold, the outcome seemed all but inevitable. In 2007, Benedict XVI issued an amendment to John Paul's document, eliminating the possibility of election by a simple majority. This time, the cardinals know that whoever's elected has to draw support from two-thirds of the college under any circumstances, which may mean they're less inclined to simply jump on a bandwagon when someone gets half the votes in a given round. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pre-conclave meetings had served to give cardinals a chance to discuss the "profile, characteristics, qualities and talents" a future pope must have. "Obviously the cardinals must arrive at this moment with all the information that is useful to make a judgment on such an important issue," he said. "The preparation is absolutely fundamental."

Also, on Friday, 8th March, the cardinals formally agreed to exempt two of their voting-age colleagues from the conclave who in past weeks had signaled they wouldn't come: Cardinal Julius Darmaatjadja, emeritus archbishop of Jakarta, who is ill, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who resigned last week after admitting to inappropriate sexual misconduct. That formality brings the number of cardinal electors to 115; a two-thirds majority — or 77 votes — is required for victory. In 2007, Benedict changed the conclave rules to keep the two-thirds majority requirement throughout the voting process, after Pope John Paul II had decreed that, following twelve days of inconclusive balloting, the threshold could switch to a simple majority. By reverting back to the traditional two-thirds majority, Benedict was apparently aiming to ensure a consensus candidate emerges quickly, ruling out the possibility that cardinals might hold out until the simple majority kicks in to push through their candidate.

8. Spiritual exercises

By resigning just before the beginning of Lent, Benedict XVI may have wanted to set a penitential tone for the conclave, inviting the cardinals to spiritual sobriety and an examination of conscience. In practice, however, the timing also handed a huge platform to one possible successor: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who's preaching the Vatican's annual Lenten retreat. By most accounts, Ravasi delivered a typically brave performance. He offered three reflections each day, drawing on his expertise as a biblical scholar and a man of deep erudition. Many found him very impressive. That reputation might help Ravasi in the sense that he's anything but a schemer, and he certainly carries no public baggage related to any of the Vatican's recent scandals. However, some may wonder if he'd be another pope more interested in the life of the mind than actually running the church. I am hoping that Cardinal Ravasi is not Benedict’s successor.

9. Social media

This will be the first conclave to unfold fully and truly in the age of social media, amid Twitter, Facebook and all the other new tools of communication. News and comment move far faster, and through far more channels, than was the case even as recently as 2005. Not every cardinal spends his spare time updating his Facebook status and dispatching tweets, of course, but they and the people around them are certainly attentive to what's being said about the pope and the candidates for the papacy during this period. If, once upon a time, cardinals used to grouse that they didn't know enough about one another, this time around they're like to complain about information overload. Further, social media also creates whole new opportunities for others to inject themselves into the process -- if not the actual voting, certainly the run-up. Activists, pundits, people with theological, political, and even liturgical axes to grind are taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere with force, helping to set the tone and shape the content of public conversation. Try as they might to insist they're not influenced by any of this, most cardinals in their honest moments will admit it's hard not to be, and that alone means they'll have more on their brains than usual this time around.

10. A crucial time for change: Vatican III on the horizon and can Cardinal Tagle of Manila deliver this?

He travels by bus and train, eats lunch with beggars and has very forthright things to say about the sex abuse scandals. Filipinos would love to see Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from Manila soon as Pope in Rome. Since October, 2011, Luis Antonio Tagle has been Archbishop of one of the large dioceses in the world, the Archdiocese of Manila. This is a not only a religious but also a politically influential post. Yet, you can still find the Cardinal traveling by bus. He is proud of not having a car of his own, as “it gives you the opportunity to escape the insulation that high management positions often bring along.” A talented communicator, Tagle has no need to worry about isolation or aloofness. From his diocese, it is reported that he approaches people in an open and easy manner, has lunch with beggars and does not hesitate to visit the dark corners of the city of Manila. Time after time, people are surprised that the person they are talking to is not just a simple priest, but the Archbishop himself. In his lectures and sermons, the Cardinal often refers to his contact with the people (many videos of these encounters can be found on the internet). During his speeches, the audience is repeatedly moved to tears and people are hanging on Bishop Tagle’s every word (something akin to the charisma of Pope John Paul II). But he admits“to be also very emotional”; when Pope Benedict XVI. elevated him to the rank of Cardinal last November, he wept. It was a moment of joy, but, at the same time, of deep respect for the exceeding greatness of the new task. Could he call Vatican III during his papacy? Could women priests and voluntary priestly celibacy be on the cards? I believe we may have a new pope by Monday 18 March. And I hope and pray that a new and more positive era might start.

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting, hard to decide. Whaty do you think about Pope Francis?


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