Sunday, February 17, 2013

Who Can Be Elected Pope?


Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J. is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996). He was editor in chief of America from 1998-2005.

Who can be elected?

In theory, any man can be elected who is willing to be baptized and ordained a priest and bishop. He does not have to be at the conclave. The last noncardinal elected was Urban VI (1378). The last cardinal to be elected pope who was a priest but not a bishop was Gregory XVI (1831). Callistus III (Alfonso Borgia [or Borja] 1455) was the last person to be elected who was not a priest. Most likely a cardinal elector will be elected, all of whom today are bishops.

Who might be elected?

It should be remembered that prior to the death of John Paul, no one in the media predicted the election of Cardinal Ratzinger. His name surfaced prominently only after John Paul’s death. As a result, prophets should be modest in their projections. It is better to speak of the qualities we might see in the next pope, then at least one has a chance of being partially right.

The next pope will probably be a cardinal between 63 and 73 years of age, who speaks Italian and English and reflects Benedict’s and John Paul’s positions (liberal on social justice and peace, traditional in church teaching and practice, and ecumenical but convinced the church has the truth) but has a very different personality from either John Paul or Benedict.

Age. Prior to the 2005 conclave, I predicted the cardinals would choose someone between 62 and 72 years of age. I was wrong. Of the nine popes who reigned in the 20th century (beginning with Leo XIII), their average age at the time of election was 65 years, with John XXIII the oldest at 76 and John Paul II the youngest at 58. The average age of the current cardinals is 72. Benedict was 78 when elected, older than all but three popes elected by cardinals through the centuries. I would argue it is unlikely the cardinals will choose another old cardinal, especially if Benedict is sick for a long time before he dies or resigns.

Languages. John Paul and Benedict have shown how important it is for the pope to be multilingual. Italian is important because it is the language of the people of Rome, for whom the pope is diocesan bishop. It is also the working language of the Vatican Curia. English is important because it is almost everyone’s first or second language. Spanish is valuable because it is the language of so many Catholics. Languages are also important because the cardinals will want to be able to converse with the pope using a language in which they are comfortable.

Positions. There is not a great amount of difference between Benedict and John Paul on the important issues facing the church, although Benedict may be a little more conservative than John Paul on interreligious dialogue, ecumenism and liturgy and a little less activist in justice and peace issues. John Paul and Benedict have appointed all the current cardinals under the age of 80 who will elect Benedict’s successor. In appointing cardinals, John Paul II and Benedict have done what anyone would do if they were pope–they have appointed men who agree with them on the major issues that face the church. The next conclave, as a result, will not elect someone who will reject the legacy of John Paul or Benedict. With the next pope, we will see more continuity than change.
As a result, there will be more continuity than change in church doctrine and policy. That means someone who is liberal on political and economic issues but traditional on sexual morality and internal church issues. Someone who supports ecumenical and interreligious dialogue but is convinced the church has the truth. In short, I do not support the “pendulum” theory when it comes to doctrine, but it may be true on personality and governance style (see below).

Personality. While there will be a continuity in policy, there will be a change in personality because there is no one in the college with Benedict’s or John Paul’s personality and cloning is against church teaching. There is no one with a personality like John Paul’s in the college of cardinals, with a background as a Polish actor, intellectual and teacher, who grew up under Nazism and Communism. Nor is there anyone like Benedict with his background as a German theologian and prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who grew up in Germany during the Second World War.

Less Centralization? Prior to the 2005 conclave, I predicted that when the cardinals gathered in conclave, they would praise John Paul “of happy memory,” but there might be a backlash against the Vatican Curia, whose power has grown during his papacy. Even the most conservative cardinal, I argued, wanted to run his diocese the way he thinks best without interference from Rome. The cardinals may therefore look, I argued, for someone who would support more decentralization of decision making in the church–more power to bishops and bishops’ conferences. Granted the election of Cardinal Ratzinger, who played a major role in centralizing power in Rome under John Paul’s papacy, I was obviously wrong. On the other hand, there have been complaints about the poor administration of the Vatican curia under Benedict although his Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, has borne the brunt of that criticism. As a result, some argue that the next Pope should have grater administrative skills than his immediate predecessors.

A Curial Cardinal? Two thirds of the cardinals are diocesan bishops who are running local churches. In the past, I argued that they would want someone who knows what it is like to be a local bishop, not simply a Vatican bureaucrat. Many cardinals working in the curia, like Cardinal Ratzinger, had diocesan experience before they came to Rome, and some Vatican officials left the curia and became cardinals as archbishops of local churches. These cardinals with both experiences have an advantage. Of the popes elected during the 20th century, only Pius XII had no diocesan experience, and only three (Pius X, John Paul I and John Paul II) never worked in the Vatican. The remaining five had worked in the curia but were leaders of archdioceses when elected pope.