Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Pignedoli Principle

Published in The Catholic Difference on May 3, 2001



In light of the many speculations about papabili after February’s consistory, I am pleased to announce the Pignedoli Principle, to wit: a man’s chances of becoming pope decrease in proportion to the number of times he’s described as papabile in the press. The more he’s papabile in the media, the less he’s papabile in reality.

This principle is named after the late Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, whom I’m quite sure few of my readers, and virtually none of my colleagues in the punditocracy, remember—which is precisely the point. Cardinal Pignedoli was a veteran Holy See diplomat who served for many years as head of the Vatican’s office for dialogue with world religions. In the mid-1970s, Cardinal Pignedoli was the odds-on choice of the Roman press corps, and the Anglophone reporters and pundits they influenced, to become the next pope.

But when the cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor to Pope Paul in August 1978, Cardinal Pignedoli, according to reliable accounts, was left so far behind that you’d have needed a telescope to find him at the end of the second ballot. He died a few years later, forgotten by those who once confidently declared him papabile.

The Pignedoli Principle is, I suppose, a variant on the ancient wheeze that “He who enters the conclave a pope leaves it a cardinal.” So for the sake of creativity, let me also propose the Baggio Corollary to the Pignedoli Principle. The former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Raymond J. Flynn, told Time magazine recently that one key to scoping out the next pope is to watch the various cardinals’ frequent flyer miles. My friend Ray Flynn has evidently not conjured sufficiently with the Baggio Corollary to the Pignedoli Principle.

During the latter years of Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio was the head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican office which vets and proposes candidates for the episcopate (if memory serves, Father Andrew Greeley, a Chicago boy to his chromosomes, once described the Congregation as the “patronage office”). Cardinal Baggio was so given to world-hopping in the years before Pope Paul’s death that he became widely known as “Viaggio Baggio,” which I translate freely as “Traveling Man.” It was assumed by those who hung this moniker on him that the cardinal’s travels were in aid of his candidacy for the post-Pauline papacy. But like his Curial colleague, Cardinal Pignedoli, Cardinal Baggio got precisely nowhere in the conclaves of 1978 (although he did go on to help orchestrate one of the crucial early moments in the current pontificate, John Paul II’s historic meeting with the Latin American episcopate at Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979).

So it doesn’t seem that a close examination of frequent-flyer accounts tells us much about a man’s prospects as a future pope.

In modern papal history, the once clear exception to the Pignedoli Principle was Pius XII, whose 1939 election was widely predicted. One might also make a case that the elections of Leo XIII in 1878 and Paul VI in 1963 were, if not entirely predictable, at least held to be likely. Everyone else was a surprise, at least as measured by public speculation prior to the conclave. Pius X was a compromise candidate elected after the emperor of Austria-Hungary vetoed the election of Leo XIII’s secretary of state. Benedict XV was bitterly opposed by a large faction in the conclave of 1914, and no sane bettor would have wagered on him at anything less than 10-1 prior to the cardinals being locked into the Apostolic Palace. Pius XI, a librarian by trade, had been a cardinal for a only a few months, and a bishop for but three years, when he was elected in 1922. According to most sources, John XXIII’s only serious supporters in the early going in 1958 were a small group of French cardinals. Cardinals Pignedoli and Baggio were the Great Mentioner’s favorites in August 1978, when the unheralded Cardinal Albino Luciani was elected in one lightning stroke. That the election of John Paul II confounded the pundits is obvious.

All of which suggests that today’s prognostications tells us rather more about the prognisticator than about the future.

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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