Reader’s Guide – Day Six

Cardinals Luis Tagle of Manila and Ricardo J. Vidal, retired archbishop of Cebu, Philippines, arrive for the first general congregation meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican March 4. (CNS / Paul Haring)


We have a pope … concept. Amid all our talk about how the problems have weighed on Benedict and embarrassed so many church leaders and aside from the speculation about front-runners to replace the pontiff emeritus, the discussion also turns to the kind of papacy that is needed next. Commonweal’s new issue has some perspective and some concepts. Peter Steinfels, former editor of the magazine and former religion writer for the New York Times writes that Benedict has saved the church from a “prolonged period of disarray” and humanized the papacy with his resignation. His successor -- Pope Novus, Steinfels dubs him – should administer shock therapy to the church, setting a term on the papacy, reforming the process of choosing a successor, embarking on a huge fund-raising program to enable the work of the church, and,  most of all, preaching the paschal mystery, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.



Joseph Komonchak, a retired Catholic Univesity ecclesiologist, points to the hyperactivity of traditionalists and reformers, who both hope for a resolution of their problems in the person of the new pontiff (more discipline, more openness).  The overemphasis on the office of the pope does a disservice to the church and the Gospel, Komonchak says. “But the church is not the pope, and the pope is not the church, and perhaps what we most need is a pope who will encourage and allow the laity, the religious, the clergy, and the hierarchy to assume their responsibilities for the difference the church is supposed to make in the world. Benedict’s resignation was a self-denying act of personal humility. What we need now in Rome are acts of institutional humility and self-denial.”

At the Vatican, many of the cardinals held the first general congregation, but only 103 of the 115 electors were present. Indications are that they will wait for the remaining electors who are planning to attend to arrive In Rome. A second general congregation was planned for later in the day. Most of the first session was taken up with oath-taking. Over the weekend the press office acknowledged that the Sistine Chapel was still open to tourists, so signs are that there may be no snap conclave. One practical reason, reports Catholic News Service, is that rooms to be used during the conclave are not assigned until lots are drawn once all the electors are present. Possible dates include March 11 and 15. Still there appears to be pressure from some to make a choice as soon as this week, EWTN reports.

One of those who can but will not vote in the conclave is Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, who issued an apology for his conduct, after previously insisting that he would fight to prove his innocence. Britain’s Observer, which broke the story on the accusations by three current and one former priest, reported that the accusers’ statements had been given to the papal nuncio and that one of the accusers said he feared the church “would crush him.” Meanwhile Cardinal Roger Mahony, much criticized for going to Rome while matters involving his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases while archbishop of Los Angeles, said that the Vatican had told him to attend, Catholic News Service reported.

The list-making goes on, and some of the handicappers have moved on to win, place, and show bets, with speculation on how one Brazilian candidate might put together enough votes to win by promising to make one of the Italians secretary of state. See the fairly skeptical report by the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen.

Some insist that such politicking is anathema, but the accounts we have of past conclaves suggest fairly consistently that the runup to the conclave is given to just such consideration of qualities and candidacies and that even in the conclave itself, if voting has not produced sufficient numbers to elect a successor to Peter, that conversation over lunch and dinner, in the corridors, in the spaces around the designated times of reflection, that the electors will share thoughts on who they can support. Writing in The Tablet, Austin Ivereigh, former communications director for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Britain, emphasizes the opportunity for clarifying candidacies during the General Congregtions: “Without a funeral to talk about, the discussions will give more time to the needs of the times and of the Church. Benedict XVI’s strengths as shepherd and teacher combined with weaknesses as governor, and they will be looking for someone who can put the Pope’s house in better order, while taking forward the ‘New Evangelization’ program he began. But whatever the subject under discussion, the congregations are always about answering one vital question: who, among us?”

The American cardinals were willing to be drawn out a little, over the weekend, about how they are spending the time before the conclave begins.  The Italian newspaper La Stampa on its English-language blog reports: “You read up on your fellow cardinal electors a great deal, in books and on the internet, Capuchin Cardinal O’Malley said. Then cardinals ask each other questions and all this information is included in their prayers, so that one or more names can be chosen based on the information received, George added.” Tracy Connor NBC News had a pretty good process piece by on the “intricate dance” of making acquaintance and assessing candidates.

The initial round of speculation produced mention of a half-dozen candidates, but the lists has grown larger.  The Catholic website New Advent is keeping a buzz index of cardinals, based on their prominence in  informed press reports and Google trends in searches for their names. If there are as many as two dozen to get some votes in the initial voting rounds, that would make the resolution very slow, indeed, which no one wants; see Robert Moynihan on the complications with a really large field.  That is one reason that some of the insiders are pushing the idea of an early conclave. The always useful John Allen offers a picture of clusters of opinion in the college (let’s not call them factions yet). Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, acknowledged the process of socialization among the cardinals is important to their decision making, and said that with all the speculation going on, he would like to see an earlier conclave, “in five or six days after we start these General Congregations.” That would point to a date of March 6 or 7.

Robert Moynihan’s latest letter from Rome relates some traditionalist upset over Benedict’s retirement, in the form of an open letter posted on the Italian-language website of Una Voce, urging cardinals not to pick a successor.

Loose ends: La Stampa surveyed the reports of problems. We should indulge their deploring of the excesses of the rest of the media, even if the rest of us complain from time to time about the excesses of the Italian press, that is, before we rewrite them for our own purposes.

The Boston Globe has an interactive graphic allowing one to look up each of the cardinals. Oxford University Press offers some rich reference materials.

All of Benedict’s tweets posted at #pontifex on Twitter were deleted when his resignation took effect.  However, they have been made available at the Vatican press office.

Finally, one reader asked to be put on a mailing list for these postings. I found that one can sign up to get alerts for new blog postings in America magazine’s In All Things section, which include these Reader’s Guide contributions.

In the meantime, we will keep watch.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019