Main Site         

Is the Pope a Catholic? And what kind will the next one be?

2013 March 2
by Paul Vallely

Is the Pope a Catholic? The question – delivered, as it invariably is, with heavy irony – is not really a question at all so much as the jocular paradigm of the ultimately self-evident. Certainly it is stretching the imagination to suppose that the gerontocracy that is the College of Cardinals might over the next two weeks come up with a successor to Benedict XVI who will be anything other than a guardian of Catholic orthodoxy. Yet the coming conclave to elect a new pope may be tumultuous.

The old men who make the decisions only get to be cardinals in the first place through long compliance to canonical Catholic doctrine. Dissidents and mavericks rarely get red hats, and certainly have not done so under the last two popes. So do not expect a Pope who will overturn church opposition to gay marriage, assisted suicide, abortion or even contraception which Catholicism sees as al  inextricably interwoven in its theology of life and sexual anthropology.

Change is a relative concept. This is a church which prides itself on thinking in centuries where German bishops were regarded as very bold last week for holding a three-day plenary on how to promote the role of women in the Church where two German cardinals suggested that while, of course, women could not be made priests, they might now be made deacons. What further inhibits change is that 65 of the voting cardinals were appointed by Benedict XVI and the other 49 by John Paul II who both promoted only men cast in their own conservative image. Even a figure as creatively orthodox as the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols has been denied a red hat.

That is not all. For the first time since the medieval era the outgoing pope has not died in office so the time for choosing a successor has been truncated. Cardinals from across the globe rarely meet; many hardly know one another, have poor Italian and little sense of whom to vote for. Traditionally the electors size one another up during preparations for the papal funeral meetings called general congregations in the days before the conclave, which are interwoven with their numerous receptions and dinners.

But this time there is no period of mourning. And one of Benedict’s last acts was to accelerate the process for calling the conclave. That will heighten the inbuilt tendency for cardinals to chose someone they already know. For all the talk about it being time for a pope from Africa, Asia or Latin America – people said the same thing last time – the chances are it will someone who is already a big beast in the Vatican jungle.

That was how Josef Ratzinger got the job last time. He had had two decades as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog and all cardinals had met him on their routine ad limina visits to Rome. As Dean of the College of Cardinals he chaired the pre-conclave congregations and also delivered the sermon at John Paul II’s obsequies.

This time the Dean is ineligible. Cardinal Angelo Sodano is, at 85, too old to vote. He will see his task as blocking the man who succeeded him as Secretary of State (the Vatican prime minister) Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who has presided over the mismanagement of  the papal civil service, the curia, to such a degree that left and right inside the church are united in declaring it to be corrupt and dysfunctional.  For all his gifts as a thinker and teacher Benedict was no governor.

Bertone holds the office of camerlengo, the cardinal who runs the Vatican between popes. Both men will have key speaking roles in the pre-conclave meetings over the coming days. Both are tainted characters. Though Sodano was a better curial administrator he supported a prominent clerical sex-abuser Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, whom Benedict XVI disgraced as soon as he became Pope. Insiders are preparing from a factious and perhaps fractious conclave in which there are no candidates head-and-shoulders above the others and there are at least ten men in with a chance.

Benedict has switched the voting back from John Paul II had changed the voting rules to a simple majority but Benedict has switched them back to two-thirds-plus-one which will increase the jockeying and tactical voting. If you had to pick a  favourite it might be  Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, though there are those who think the philosopher-theologian is too similar to Ratzinger.

There is another problem. The cardinals must chose someone who can cope with the fact that his predecessor Benedict will be living in an old pope’s home a stone’s throw from St Peter’s. As he left office, declaring that he had ceased to be a pope and become a pilgrim, Benedict pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to whoever succeeds him. But he also said “there is no returning to private life”. His decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry meant “I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St Peter’s bounds”.

If that sounds ambiguous read it in conjunction with the fact that his secretary Archbishop Ganswein – known as Goregous George among Vatican journalists – will remain as Prefect of the Papal Household and yet will reportedly be going to live with Benedict in a Vatican convent. Each day he will go to work with the new pope and then return home to the old one each evening. One Man Two Masters may have nothing on that. The medieval spectre of pope and anti-pope looms in Rome where folk have long memories.

Benedict’s unseen presence may also psychologically pressure the electors in the first stage of choosing a new pope which is to analyse the achievements and failures of the last one. Many of the latter are contained in a secret dossier Benedict commissioned after the Vatileaks prosecution of the papal butler who leaked secret documents to journalists. When Benedict read its exposure of Vatican  intrigue and infighting, the Italian press report, after years of coping with paedophile priests and episcopal cover-up, he decided that he did not have the strength to carry on.  He locked it in his safe with the instruction that it should only be read by the next Pope.  Whoever is elected should not expect an easy time.

Comments are closed.