A long, complex, and open conclave

Published November 6, 2003

The Catholic Difference

Rome in mid-October was awash with rumor-mongering and media speculation, what with the Pope’s silver jubilee, an extraordinary meeting of the College of Cardinals to review the pontificate’s accomplishments, and the creation of thirty new cardinals on October 21. The exemplary personal witness of a courageous, suffering John Paul II, touchingly manifest at Mother Teresa’s beatification on October 19, blunted some of this. But the Italian media being what it is, and people being what they are, I suppose it was impossible for many to concentrate on the magnificent achievements of the past quarter-century; the urge to speculate about the future proved, for some, an itch that was impossible not to scratch.

Anyone who tells you they have a good idea who the next pope will be is, by reason of saying that, not to be trusted. Still, some features of the next papal conclave are coming into focus, not least because of the recent expansion of the College of Cardinals.

It seems likely that the next conclave will be the most open and complex in modern history. That means it may also be one of the longer conclaves in recent decades. Why?

John Paul II has changed the Church’s expectations – and the world’s expectations– of what popes are for. The next pope may travel less extensively than John Paul. The next pope may take a more direct hand in the structure, staffing, and functioning of the Church’s central administrative apparatus in Rome. But will the next pope return to the managerial model of the papacy that shaped expectations during the twentieth century conclaves? It seems very unlikely. John Paul II has retrieved and renewed a more biblical image of the Office of Peter as primarily evangelical and pastoral rather than administrative; that has dramatically changed expectations of the papacy. And those changed expectations will help create an open conclave in which questions of nationality and race will matter little.

Several other factors suggest that the next conclave will be a complex one. As some cardinal-electors acknowledge privately, there is no leading candidate or small group of candidates at this juncture. That doesn’t mean that some cardinals don’t imagine themselves in white; it does mean that their imaginings are not broadly shared within the electorate.

Then there’s the fact that the electors really don’t know each other that well and will likely take some time to measure each other’s capacities. That thirty new cardinals have now been added to the pre-conclave discussion, and that the electorate is likely to be the largest ever, are two more factors pointing to a process that’s longer rather than shorter, at least by modern papal election standards. The weight of responsibility that the electors will feel also bears on this. Whatever Hans Kung thinks, the men responsible for electing John Paul II’s successor know very well that they are charged with finding an apt heir to the legacy of a gigantic figure in Christian history. They won’t rush to judgment.

The fact that the electors will be comfortable rather than miserable while “immured” in the conclave also suggests that they’ll take their time. Previous cardinal-electors lived in Spartan cubicles cut out of offices in the Apostolic Palace; the cubicles were furnished with iron beds and chamber pots. The electors in the next conclave will live in three-room suites in the new Vatican guest house, St. Martha’s House, built by John Paul II. Discomfort created pressures to get the job done quickly in conclaves past. Those pressures won’t be a factor in the next papal election.

Of course, the Holy Spirit could have an entirely different scenario in mind. One or even several of the cardinals could make such a strong impression during the pre-conclave discussions that a short list of serious candidates emerges quickly. Those are imponderables, however. Looking at the process in purely human terms, the expectations weighing on the electors, their diversity, their relative unfamiliarity with each other, and the more humane circumstances in which they will live all suggest an open, complex, and probably lengthy process.

Pre-conclave prognostications are notoriously dangerous for the prognosticator’s reputation. But this is how it looked to me – and to some cardinal-electors – in Rome last month.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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