Reader's Guide to the Papal Transition


The editors have asked me to contribute a reader’s guide to press coverage of the election of a new pope. I’m going to point out some examples of that journalism in the runup to the conclave and suggest some ways of thinking about them.


I hope you find this a useful way to check each day on the climate of public opinion, as evidenced in the press.  My bias is toward formal professional journalism, both that published for the general-circulation press and for a specifically Roman Catholic audience.  I wrote about religion for many years for my own newspaper, The Boston Globe, and covered the two conclaves of 1978. That makes me aware of both the possibility of useful insights and the likelihood of imperfection in such coverage.  I hope you find these pointers useful, and I would welcome suggestions for improving this guide as the next few weeks go on.  Tomorrow, Feb. 25, is expected to be the final day of the public ministry of Benedict XVI, and, as we understand it now, the conclave that will choose his successor must begin by 20 days later. The expectation is that we will have a new pope by Easter.

There have been a number of appreciations and assessments of Benedict’s pontificate, and I hope to point out some of the most interesting in the next few days of Sede Vacante, the interregnum between pontificates. But the most pressing business before us is the question of how to assess the positioning of possible successors and the apparent efforts to disqualify some of them, either as papabile or even as cardinal electors.

It is open season for speculation. In the absence of real information, one can offer a theory and provide enough baling wire and chewing gum to make it stick. The Tablet, in Britain, speculated before Benedict told of his resignation plans. Their updated list is here.

Latin America has its hopes.

So does Asia and Oceania.

Boston, too, has a horse in the race.

The latter owes much to the series of blog posts by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, a papabile a day, one of the best-informed speculators.

In the past, conclaves have met under serious political pressure, even threat of military force. Today, the immediate threat seems to be unwelcome coverage of scandals touching senior prelates and even the Vatican bureaucracy itself.

In the United States, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles has been ordered by his successor to cease public ministry in the archdiocese, but Cardinal Roger Mahoney says he will attend the conclave, even as he was being deposed on his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases and a conservative Catholic faction delivered petitions asking him to stay away from Rome.

In Britain, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, nearing the age at which archbishops are expected to resign, had his pro forma resignation accepted by Benedict days after press reports that O’Brien himself had abused priests under his jurisdiction. Known as Cardinal Controversy for his willingness to acknowledge publicly that clerical celibacy is not a matter of dogma, O’Brien said he would not go to Rome for the conclave.

John F. Burns of the New York Times, writing from London about the initial reports of the charges against O’Brien, offers some useful perspective: “These reports have been seen by some in the Vatican as intended to harm some contenders for the papacy, or to disqualify some of the cardinals expected to participate in the conclave. Some Vatican experts believe they might also be devised to manufacture a sense of crisis that would encourage the conclave to select a conservative cardinal as the next pope.”

If Mahony and O’Brien can be thought of as liberal electors who right-wing factions prefer not vote in a papal election, the Vatican itself is immersed in rumors about sexual misconduct among high church officials, most notably an article in La Repubblica. Officials wish it would all go away, but the report is real, even if its details are secret and the Vatican has acknowledged its existence.

Still the Vatican Press Office and even the Secretariat of State deplore interest in the report and those who insist on interpreting the papal transition through its lens.

How effective that will be remains to be seen.

I will pause for now.  You can leave comments here or write me at

By way of full disclosure, I work for a daily newspaper, The Boston Globe, and I write headlines and edit other people’s articles for grammar, accuracy, and fairness. My editor has been kind enough to allow me to contribute this material to America magazine.  The selection of articles I highlight is my own, and any comments must be attributed to me.  I hope to get better at this over the next days and weeks.

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


The latest from america

Psychedelics can blur the line between science and spirituality—but Christian mysticism cannot be studied.
Terrance KleinJanuary 17, 2019
The extensive New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate following Roe v. Wade never happened and did not need to.
​Helen AlvaréJanuary 17, 2019
In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019
I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019