Picking the Pope

In American politics we often hear the words “Call your local representatives” when an issue we’re interested in comes to the forefront. And while the laity cannot directly pick a new Pope, they may be able to have some influence in the weeks leading up to the conclave.

John Allen reports today on what happens during the weeks before the Papal conclave amongst the various Cardinals. He cites four important influential items that happen over that time: The General Congregations, Media Items, Meetings in Apartments amongst language groups, and the hotel Santa Marta where the Cardinals stay and have extended conversations.

I’d like to take up the media piece since that is the only one that the laity might be able to have some significant influence over. Allen suggests that sometimes just placing the thought that someone might be unfit in the minds of the voters is enough to eliminate them. He points out rumors that were floated about some Cardinal’s health, or incompetence which can taint them as unfit for being Pope. And as in most things, timing is everything.

No one really had the time to trace down all these rumors, and in a sense, that was the point. The hope was that the mere fact that negative things were being said would be enough to derail a particular candidacy. In that sense, a conclave is more analogous to British rather than American politics — the race lasts only a couple of weeks instead of years. In the American cycle, there’s time to sort out whether rumors about George W. Bush’s National Guard service or Barack Obama’s birth certificate are authentic or not; in the frenzy of an abbreviated papal campaign, there’s just no time to do that kind of legwork.

It should be emphasized that these smear campaigns almost always originate outside the College of Cardinals and that there is generally a very genteel, respectful tone to the discussions among the cardinals themselves.

So the more that gets written and more importantly, read, by the Cardinals entering the conclave the better or worse a candidate’s chances may be. One bad article could sway several voters in a short period of time.

We don’t like to think that politics plays a role here, but it certainly does and probably should. The question of how well do these guys really know one another. In my own work in the American Church amongst Bishops, I always noticed how Cardinal McCarrick would always praise certain Bishops, in particular, then-Bishop Wuerl would always be mentioned by him when given an opportunity. I wasn’t much surprised when now-Cardinal Wuerl was made the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. after Cardinal McCarrick. Friends often can promote other friends into higher positions.

So I’ll be paying attention to the articles about various Cardinals in the coming weeks and see if any raise any red flags. I’ll try to highlight some folks who we should watch out for and while I’m not particularly good at handicapping a winner, I’m hoping to be able to at least name a few people who might become Pope.

Stay tuned.

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