Who will fill Vatican void? 5 Myths about Picking a Pope

MONDAY MARCH 4: The first General Congregation of the College of Cardinals will convene on the morning of Monday, March 4th, 2013. That gathering will organize the papal conclave to elect a new pope. The Wikipedia editorial team is doing a great job of posting daily updates on the process—providing more details than you will find in most U.S. newspapers or magazines. The leading American news analyst on the papal transition, journalist and author Thomas Reese, also continues to cover the transition …


PHOTOS OF THE VATICAN: At top is the interior of St. Peter’s basilica; below is St. Peter’s Square at night. Bottom photo by Juan Rubiano. Both released in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.Already, 115 cardinals from around the globe have gathered at the Vatican. Within a matter of days, they will move into the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, invoke the Holy Spirit and elect a pope to replace Benedict XVI. Behind closed doors, cut off from the outside world, they will choose a leader who will have an impact on not only the billion-member Catholic Church but the entire planet.

The world is watching—but there are lots of myths about how the cardinals will make their choice.


THE MISCONCEPTION: Pope Benedict resigned, rather than remain in office until death, so he could influence the election.

In Washington D.C., where I’m based, we tend to be suspicious of the explanations politicians give for anything, but in the case of the pope’s resignation, the explanation—his deteriorating health—appears to be accurate. Benedict recognizes that he is no longer up to the job, and he should be honored for giving up power and position for the good of the church. He has moved out of Rome to avoid the appearance of undue influence. “He will not interfere in any way,” a Vatican spokesman said.

So how will the cardinals decide? The cardinals will look for someone who agrees with their values and vision for the church. Each elector also want someone with whom he will have a good relationship. Finally, since all politics is local, each cardinal wants someone who will be well received in his country. Americans want someone who understands the sex abuse crisis; Nigerians want someone who understands Islam.

The cardinals realize that this election will be one of the most important things they ever do. One pope, Felix IV (526-30), tried to influence the selection of his replacement; the Roman Senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope’s successor during his lifetime.

Benedict has appointed 57 percent of the cardinal electors (John Paul II named the rest), so they will most likely elect someone with similar views. In American terms, that means someone to the right of Newt Gingrich on social issues and to the left of Nancy Pelosi on economic issues.


THE MISCONCEPTION: The next pope is likely to be African or Latin American.

Catholicism has been growing dramatically in the developing world—and global news coverage of the transition has aired interviews with Africans and Latin Americans expressing high hopes. But, with 52 percent of the cardinals coming from Europe, chances are the next pope will be European.

The Italians have the largest bloc of votes, almost one-fourth of the 116 electors. John Paul II, who was Polish, was elected because the Italian cardinals were divided. Current evidence, including documents leaked from the Vatican, indicates that the Italian cardinals are again split. A non-Italian is again possible.

Those who support a pope from Africa argue that the vibrant and growing African church is Catholicism’s future. Others say that the church in Africa is doing fine and that Catholics need a leader who can save the church in the developed world. In the United States, about one out of three people raised Catholic has left the church. The church in Europe has been in trouble since the 19th century. Today, more people in Paris go to mosques on Friday than go to Mass on Sunday.

Both John Paul and Benedict railed against secularism and relativism in Europe but were unable to turn the tide. If there is a cardinal who can turn the church around in Europe and the United States, he deserves the job.


THE MISCONCEPTION: The cardinals will elect a brilliant theologian like John Paul and Benedict.

At the past two conclaves, the cardinals elected the smartest man in the room. Now, it may be time to choose a man who will listen to all the other smart people in the church.

The problem with most academics and intellectuals, especially philosophers and theologians, is that they have already made up their minds on important issues and rarely change them. It might be time for a skilled diplomat who has experience in negotiating and building consensus, useful skills for responding to the priest shortage, declining church attendance and internal divisions.

Both John Paul and Benedict got into trouble because they were surrounded by people who thought the popes were the smartest men in the world. Such people are reluctant to challenge their bosses. For example, in 2006 Benedict gave an address that included a quote from a Byzantine emperor denigrating Islam. If an expert on Islam had read the text beforehand, he could have warned that there would be a negative reaction from the Arab street.


THE MISCONCEPTION: Don’t expect big surprises to come out of the 2013 conclave.

In the new papacy, there will probably be more continuity than radical change. Don’t expect female priests next month. But the Holy Spirit can always surprise us, as it did with the 1958 election of John XXIII, whom the cardinals thought would be a “do nothing” pope; instead, he convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed modern Catholicism. Everyone was also surprised by the 1978 election of John Paul II, the first non-Italian in centuries.

While the cardinals will be loyal to the pope, the new pontiff, once elected, has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, consult and pray before each big decision. Where that will lead him is anyone’s guess.


THE MISCONCEPTION: It doesn’t matter who is elected pope; nobody listens to him.

While the pope can no longer command absolute obedience among the faithful, he is still the leader of an organization with more than 1 billion members. What he says and does matters, whether it is regarding the Middle East, AIDS, climate change or many other issues that touch not only Catholics but everyone.

The most important challenge for the pope and the church is to figure out how to preach the Gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people of the 21st century, especially young people, who can be turned off by religion. Benedict got it right when he said Christianity should not be presented as a series of “no’s” but as a “yes” to Jesus and his message of love, life, justice, peace and community. If the new pope does this, he could revitalize the church. He needs to use all the modern means of communication, even Twitter, to get his message across.

In preaching the Gospel, the church needs to imitate, not just quote, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best thinking of their times—for Augustine it was Neoplatonism, for Thomas it was the writings of Aristotle—and used it to explain Christianity.


This column is used by permission from Father Thomas Reese, who originally posted a version of this piece in the Opinions section of the Washington Post. Reese is the author of several essential books about the structure and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. His most important book, right now, is Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,published by Harvard University Press. For decades, Father Reese has been one of the leading American experts on the Catholic church, quoted in newspaper, magazines and TV news stories. Father Reese also has organized an extensive index to Papal Transition stories, hosted by America magazine online.


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