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How to read the College of Cardinals

9 March, 2013 2 Comments

The conclave has been scheduled for March 12. It suggests that the cardinals are nearer to their decision. The last thing any of them wants is to be locked away for a long conclave.

By John Trungove*

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, unprecedented in modern times, has unleashed another feature of the age, namely a frenzy of speculation in the mass media as to the identity and profile of the next successor of St Peter.

What the commentariat collectively fails to understand is the dynamics of a papal election. It is quite unlike that of the political world where the media, by manipulating popular opinion, makes and unmakes democratic leaders or pulls down a dictator. A new pope is not made in the image of media moguls or journalists and no amount of speculation or newsprint can decide the new pontiff.

To discern the inadequacy of the media, one needs only to examine the brief given to the College of Cardinals for choosing a pope. They are exhorted:

“… not to allow themselves to be guided … by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favour or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity. Rather, having before their eyes solely the glory of God and the good of the Church, and having prayed for divine assistance, they shall give their vote to the person, even outside the College of Cardinals, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way.” [Universi Dominici Gregis, 83]

These instructions, promulgated by John Paul II in 1996 and modified only slightly by Benedict XVI, prescribe the norms and rules for selecting a new pope.

Universi Dominici Gregis also provides for pre-conclave ” congregations” (or meetings) of cardinals, during which the electors and their older colleagues discuss the state of the Church and the choice of the new pontiff.

We saw this week the interaction of the cardinals and behaviour that reveals much of the tension in the Sacred College. That some cardinals have been happy to share their thoughts with the press while others have pressed strongly for absolute silence highlights the division among the various elements of the Princes of the Church.

In the first days after Benedict’s resignation announcement, media speculation focussed, as expected, on the prospects of an African or Latin American pope and whether the Italian papabile had strong support. The name of Cardinal Turkson, from Ghana, was widely heard, along with those of Cardinal Scola, Archbishop of Milan and the Canadian Cardinal Oullet. There was little understanding shown of the currents within the Church and curial issues.

The popables

Some consideration of these three papabili (or “popables”)  is now appropriate.

Cardinal Peter Turkson is a rising star in the Church and worthy of notice. However, he is only 64 and has yet to emerge as a clear leader after the fashion of his Nigerian predecessor, the widely respected Cardinal Francis Arinze, himself papabile in 2005.

Cardinal Angelo Scola is of particular note, having been Patriarch of Venice and now Archbishop of Milan. Both provided many popes in the 20th century. Cardinal Scola is the strongest Italian candidate and will always have firm support. He is from the same philosophical school as Benedict XVI and is the leading light of Communione e Liberazione, a movement that has risen to prominence particularly during the last two pontificates.

Apart from being a leading Italian, Cardinal Scola does not represent the interests of the Vatican curia, something that has become a major factor during this sede vacante period.

Cardinal Marc Oullet, formerly Archbishop of Quebec and now Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, is the strongest curial candidate. His performance in charge of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin attracted much favourable comment. However, his support base would almost match that of Cardinal Scola, with whom he shares prominence in the Communio fraternity. It is foreseeable that his name could emerge as a compromise candidate in the event of Cardinal Scola being blocked by the efforts of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

No bloc of cardinals, even from Italy, is undivided.

Cardinal Bertone is 78 years old and is not a realistic papabile. However, as in 2005, Bertone remains the strongest power-broker in the curia. He has been blamed for most of the crises during Benedict’s papacy or has taken the fall for them to shield his boss. Benedict stood by Bertone throughout all the troubles and refused to replace him.

Cardinal Bertone would prefer a curial candidate and is seen as strongly opposed to Cardinal Scola. He has the most to lose from the election of a strong reforming pope from outside the curia.

Bertone vs. Scola

The real or apparent differences between Cardinals Scola and Bertone are central to the coming Conclave. The rift has its origins in the days before the direction of the Church was so firmly altered by John Paul II. Scola’s immediate predecessors in Milan were closer in philosophy to Bertone. Scola himself was rejected for ordination in the diocese of Milan and his alignment with Communione e Liberazione meant that he remained out of favour until the time of John Paul II.

In his turn, Benedict XVI saw Scola as the ideal choice for Milan, in keeping with its long tradition of strong and sure bishops. Bertone, leading the curia, did not want such a man installed in the prestigious and influential see of Milan, with the risk of severe diminution of his own influence in Italy. Bertone may have been overruled by Benedict XVI on the Milan appointment but he did successfully prevent Scola from becoming president of the Italian Bishops Conference in 2007. Bertone alleged that Scola would have divided the Italian bishops. Scola’s candidacy threatened Bertone’s own control over those same prelates.

The lingering question in the past few weeks is just who has the endorsement of Cardinal Bertone. This was first understood to be Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of several pontifical bodies. Ravasi was a surprise addition to the Sacred College in 2010, given some concern about the orthodoxy of one of his statements in 1995. While supported by Bertone, Ravasi would have general opposition from the more conservative elements of the Sacred College, which effectively means its vast majority.

Latin American play

In recent days, it has been suggested that Cardinal Bertone’s nominee is in fact the Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, Archbishop of São Paulo. Cardinal Scherer is of German origin. He serves in the Congregation for the Clergy and the powerful Pontifical Council for the Family, as well as other pontifical commissions.

In conjunction with Cardinal Scherer, the curial camp is said to favour the appointment of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, as the new Secretary of State. Candinal Sandri is an Argentine of Italian stock.

It seems unusual for the names of two Latin American cardinals to be linked on a “ticket”. Despite their curial pedigrees (Scherer served in the Congregation for Bishops from 1994 to 2001), such a combination is unlikely to be popular among cardinals in general. There is also the impediment that conclave “deals” are neither licit nor valid and are expressly forbidden by Universi Dominici Gregis.

The American cardinals, plus several of their colleagues from outside of Europe, including Cardinal Pell, all spoke to the press, before the general Congregations, about the profile of the ideal pope. Most of their comments in fact reflected what is set out in Universi Dominici Gregis, 83, but the strongest quality mentioned was the ability to govern the Church. Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, also remarked that the cardinals were considering not just the obvious names considered in the press but also many more worthy individuals.

Curial games

The frankness of those cardinals who spoke to the media appears to have annoyed the curial officials considerably. Given that the leader of the curia is the Secretary of State, it is logical to assume that he was behind the call for silence that followed the press briefings. It would also be reasonable to assume that the public comments were perceived as criticism of the current governance of the Church. Neither did the curia seem to care for the sentiment, expressed later in the week, that the cardinals were not yet ready to enter the conclave and were in no hurry to proceed.

The conclave has now been scheduled to begin on March 12, suggesting that cardinals are nearer to their decision. The last thing that any of them wants is to be locked away for a long conclave. If their thoughts are now more organised, they are ready to make a relatively quick decision in the Sistine Chapel.

The general consensus is that many of the media’s nostrums about choosing a pope are now utterly obsolete. There is no bar to a Third World pope, an American or any other non-European. No bloc of cardinals, even from Italy, is undivided. Compromise and careful analysis is the way the cardinals prefer to operate. While resisting media influence, they are just as reluctant to be told what to think by the existing administration.

What has emerged in the last two days is the thought that, for strong and effective government, the College needs to turn to men who have led the way in reform and cleaning-up past abuses. In the case of the American church, attention has fallen upon leaders such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of Washington and Cardinal Seamus O’Malley, the Capuchin Archbishop of Boston. Neither of these men can be dismissed from consideration as papabile, merely because they are from the United States, given the clear evidence that has circulated concerning the thoughts of cardinals in general.

In summary, the leading papabile is Cardinal Scola of Milan. If his candidacy is blocked by Cardinal Bertone’s supporters, then Cardinal Oullet is a possibility. However, it may well be that the next pope comes from across the Atlantic, with several papabile in both North and South America having strong pastoral and administrative experience.

*John Trungove is a Melbourne writer and “Vaticanologist”

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Comments (2)

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  1. Lucien Tenebrae says:

    Cheese-heads

    The problem with Dolan is that he’s too silly. “Cheese-heads”, etc. Good man, of course, otherwise, but he lacks the gravitas you’d hope that a Pope would have.

    Lucien Tenebrae

    • John Trungove says:

      Yes, he does appear rather too jolly in the press photos. Nevertheless, he has taken a positive lead in serious matters, which is what is keeping his name in the mix.

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