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Conclave strangely short

21 March, 2013 0 Comments

Vote – and judge – in haste; repent at liesure?

By John Trungove

The cardinal electors agreed to begin the recent Conclave on March 12, no doubt anxious to end the goldfish bowl examination of their interactions during the general congregations. One wonders why, having entered the seclusion of the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals were in such a tearing hurry to complete their task.

Given the shock and disarray occasioned by Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation, a little over 24 hours spent in conclave is hardly any time at all.

While a long drawn-out confinement appealed to no one, a little more reflection and deliberation might have produced a less confusing outcome or one that sent a clearer message.

It would appear that the supporters of Cardinal Bertone always had the numbers to block Cardinal Scola. There was, however, no need to be seen to latch on to the most appealing alternative candidate without careful consideration. If the cardinals went into the conclave with a well-prepared Plan B, they also had the chance to spend at least another day considering all of the alternatives.

What was obvious to many observers before the conclave was the likelihood of a cardinal affiliated with the conservative lay movement, Communione e Liberazione (CL) being elected pope. Indeed, it was not a question of whether one of these cardinals would become pope, but which one. With Cardinal Bergoglio’s previous support in the 2005 conclave, he was always going to be in the mix should Scola’s prospects falter.

Scherer smoke-screen

It seems to have transpired that the pre-conclave hints about curial support for the Brazilian Cardinal Scherer were in fact a smoke-screen. There was apparently a solid move against Scola from the start, centred around a candidate with prior experience in attracting votes. Considering Bergoglio’s relatively friendly comments about the curia in a February 2012 press interview, Bertone’s adherents probably realised that they already had their man.

Did the majority of the Sacred College really know the man they were about to elevate to the papacy? The messages coming out of Rome since the election of Pope Francis have been decidedly mixed. The words of both the new pope and the former cardinal have been seized upon and analysed remorselessly, sometimes being considered entirely out of context.

For example, the sentiments of an Argentine prelate on the question of the Falklands/Malvinas – that the islands had been “usurped” by Britain – were quite understandable in their original setting, yet are no longer appropriate or reasonably to be expected from the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church.

Neither has there been any lack of fringe elements claiming the new pope as their own. We have seen a fallen Liberation Theology leader and a sidelined liberal theologian from Tubingen expressing delight with Pope Francis. This in no way means that Francis is actually inclined in their direction. At the same time, the public statements of some cardinals, perhaps still in ignorance of the likely approach of the new pontiff, show all the hallmarks of spin.

Why were the cardinals in such a tearing hurry to complete their task?

As nobody knows exactly what to expect of Pope Francis, there is no justification for either elation or despair. A man has been chosen for an important role but he needs time to grow into his job, while still being expected to please everyone with the statements he is obliged to make as he takes his first steps. These include the traditional appearances and blessings, where there is not much room for variation or novelty.

Litmus tests

A full picture will emerge over time. Signals will be detected when there are specific deeds or statements, such as the appointment of curial leaders or the first consistory to create new cardinals (there will be only 113 cardinal electors by Easter) or announcements on the contentious issues of a particular day.

Some litmus tests have already been applied but these are bound by individual perspectives. Traditionalists anxious about the preservation of the historical liturgy of the Church point to Bergoglio’s record in his archdiocese. There was little official support in Buenos Aires for the restorations approved by Benedict XVI.

However, all that Pope Francis has to do to keep everyone happy is simply to leave everything in place. Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum legislation allows for the celebration of the traditional Latin mass without interfering with the more unconventional liturgical forms proliferating in various circles and cultures.

The fears of the traditionalists might be groundless, but it is hard to reconcile reports of a supposedly liberal pope with the practice at his first Sunday Mass, where deacons administered communion on the tongue to an exclusively kneeling congregation.

Others have suggested that priority will be given to the beatification of figures such as the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador or one of Bergoglio’s own countrymen killed by the junta in the 1970s.

Such gestures do not necessarily have any sinister significance. They would merely reflect the natural sympathies of the new pope for regional heroes, something that is not dissimilar to the attention given to Polish figures under Pope John Paul II.

The commentariat which seeks to remake the Church in its own radically liberal image can expect no joy from a pope who opposed same-sex civil unions in Argentina, no matter how gently this was put in the eyes of some. Detractors may say that Bergoglio had no choice but to support the official line from Rome. However, a man with the courage to shelter and protect the targets of a vicious dictatorship in the 1970s would have no trouble paying lip service to Rome while binding and loosing in his own way in Buenos Aires.

The Argentine experience

There is no evidence to support an argument that any orthodox or conservatives positions adopted by Bergoglio in his own archdiocese were anything but genuine. It is merely a question of emphasis. Pope Francis has lived in a Catholic culture where dealing with oppression and poverty is just as important as teaching and preaching, without the latter being neglected. It therefore comes as no surprise that such issues would be mentioned in the homily at his papal inauguration, in contrast with the lofty theological insights given by the previous three pontiffs at their respective installations.

We must all now wait to see whether the new pontificate brings joy or frustration. In the meantime, the Vicar of Bray types will leap to get on board the new pontificate while the more cautious will analyse the new Pope’s every word and deed.

It may not just be the cardinals who repent at leisure; there are also many who have spoken out who may have done so prematurely.

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