'Party politics' and the coming conclave

'Party politics' and the coming conclave

Covering the conclave would be a lot simpler for journalists if cardinals would just organize themselves into ecclesial “parties” and then vote the party line inside the Sistine Chapel.

Naturally, it doesn’t work that way. In the 21st century, it’s hazardous to peg any cardinal to a voting bloc and delineate conclave caucuses. There are several reasons, but the biggest is that it presumes a level of organization among cardinals that usually isn’t there.

That doesn’t stop intrepid reporters from trying, of course. For days we’ve been reading about the “Roman Party” in the conclave, which in theory includes many of the 41 Roman Curia cardinals (past or present) who will cast a vote, along with some of their 28 Italian confreres.

In fact, this may be the most cohesive group in the College of Cardinals – and recent criticism of the Roman Curia’s performance has probably led them to close ranks. These cardinals, if they’re on the same page, may well be able to deliver 40 or more votes to a candidate on a first ballot, which could generate enough momentum to carry the day.

The Roman Party is predominantly Italian, yet all indications are that these cardinals may throw support to a non-Italian who would have broader appeal – someone like Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil or Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina. Both men were born in Latin America, yet are of European descent. Both have strong ties to the Vatican: Sandri has spent his whole career in the Roman Curia, and Scherer worked there for seven years.

The expectation is that either cardinal, if elected, would bring in an Italian as secretary of state, thus maintaining the strong Italian influence in internal church affairs and in diplomatic dealings. (The name of Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, floated last week as a potential secretary of state, may have had a boomerang effect, however. Piacenza, head of the Congregation for Clergy, is considered very conservative to the point of being called a "closet Lefebvrist" by one informed Vatican observer.)

Today, the Rome newspaper La Repubblica has identified what it calls the “Reform Party” among cardinal electors – the only group, we are told, that has the votes to stop the Romans. Their top papal candidates include Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, an Italian who is viewed as an outsider by the Curia, and U.S. Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O’Malley.

The Reform Party also counts Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn among its ranks, a man who could have great influence in the voting and who could even emerge as pope.

La Repubblica reported today that Cardinal Scola already can count on 40 votes in the conclave, and that his star is rising. That was perhaps a deliberate echo of an article that appeared in a Rome newspaper a few days before the start of the 2005 conclave, giving Cardinal Ratzinger at least 40 votes.

As I say, if the lines were really so cleanly drawn, life would be much easier for the 5,000 journalists covering the papal election.

Here are some complicating factors that make the situation harder to read:

-- Geographical allegiances are no longer as strong as they once were. In the age of globalization, the international connections made by cardinals are probably more important that national loyalties.

To give just one example, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington last week made the case against an American as pope – surprising those who assumed U.S. cardinals would unanimously back one of their own.

-- The “parties” identified by reporters are much less homogenous than they appear. Among Roman Curia cardinals, for example, are several who would no doubt like to see major reforms at the Vatican: Cardinals Kasper, Tauran, Turkson, Braz de Aviz and Ravasi.

-- It’s difficult for any group of cardinals to line up behind a single candidate. Yet that’s what has to happen in order to reach the necessary two-thirds majority needed for election – and it has to happen fairly quickly.

In the dynamics of a conclave, in fact, the ability to shift gears and shape momentum after each ballot is essential. A first ballot will give the lay of the land, but in the successive three or four ballots the cardinals have to decide when to move from a weaker candidate to a stronger one, as consensus grows.

This timing of these swings is key, and – in theory, at least – there are no party bosses giving orders. But here is where the experience of the Old Guard in the Roman Curia may well come into play.

It’s going to take at least 77 votes to elect the next pope, so any candidate is going to have to attract support from more than a single “party” of cardinals. That means someone with transversal appeal. To many observers in Rome, Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet seems to fit that description: a Roman Curia official who is seen as a potential reformer, a North American with strong ties to Latin America, and a man who does not seem to be closely aligned with any faction.

7 comments (Add your own)

1. Proteios wrote:
thank GOD they dont have parties. Simpler? Yes, or course. And SIMPLE defines US politics because of this silly (and highly unethical) teo party system. Simple or should I say simpletons...which is what the voting populace has become (in terms of political savvy and misinformation of the media). No thanks - it works better than the myriad kingdoms that havent lasted as long as the Church. Leave it be. No more modernization.

Fri, March 8, 2013 @ 10:22 AM

2. Cliff Borgerding wrote:
John... can you comment on why the cardinals so concentrated in Europe?

I realize the College of Cardinals is not a "democratic" organization but it seems the distribution is severly unbalanced when compared to the distribution of catholics thoughout the world.

It would seem that if the cardinals are truly the voice of the church and advisors to the pope the distribution would be a little more consistent with the population of catholics in different parts of the world.

Is this just my "American" experience showing through? If there is going to be an opportunity for change in the church it would seem this is a fundamental adjustment that needs to to made to the church's organization. Cliff

Fri, March 8, 2013 @ 12:46 PM

3. C. deVille wrote:
@Cliff Borgerding:

My guess would be that for the last 1,000 years or more the "center" of the Church has been Western European - a very recent development that Asia and Africa have become more numerous.

Cardinals are Cardinals for life. Also I would believe that in "Mission" areas it takes generations for the Church to mature and produce homegrown Bishops and Cardinals - It's always been like that I think...

In the USA we had Missionaries and it took few hundred years before we had homegrown clergy...(and now we are virtually a Mission territory once again..)

I am not a Vaticanista, just my opinion

Fri, March 8, 2013 @ 5:50 PM

4. Sad wrote:

There is a difference between a secular understanding of universal vs. an ecclesiological one.

A secular understanding of universal representation looks a little like the UN - each country being represented, with the major powers having additional representation or veto powers.

An ecclesiological understanding of universal is very distinct. At the everyday contact of an ordinary Catholic are the local churches - the local diocese, each representing the Church in its fulness. The universality of the Church is demonstrated by the Bishop of that diocese being in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Each Catholic is in communion with his Bishop - so for example, Joe a Catholic in the Archdiocese of NY is in communion with +Dolan. +Dolan is in communion with the Bishop of Rome therefore Joe is in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Jane, a Catholic in the Archdiocese of Boston is in communion with +O'Malley, who again is in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The reason why Joe in NY, and Jane in Boston are in communion with each other is because their respective bishops are in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

This understanding of universality therefore is not dependent on national or geographical boundaries - why should an American Catholic be intrinsically different from an Asian Catholic? - which are the product of geopolitics, but is dependent upon something far deeper and more real. The communion that an American Catholic shares with a Brazilian Catholic (by virtue of their communion with the Pope) is greater and more "one", than the union shared by citizens who agree to the Constitution of the USA, or individuals who have a shared social enterprise. This is what we mean when we say that the Church is not a social organisation but a transcendent, spiritual and divine one.

As can be seen, it is the Pope (not the College of Cardinals) who holds communion with the bishops around the world, and therefore his office represents the universal Church regardless of country of origin.

Because the Pope represents the universal Church, Cardinals are not meant to represent the universal Church. They have always traditionally represented the Roman Church, i.e. the Diocese of Rome.

Fri, March 8, 2013 @ 7:11 PM

5. TeaPot562 wrote:
If one reads Church History back (say) to 1377 and the end of the Pope's "Babylonian Exile" in Avignon, France; the tendency was for a pope to appoint as cardinals those who were archbishops of major cities; and since some of the papal subordinates in Rome had to deal with those archbishops on a regular basis, they were also made cardinals. Even today, more Italians are cardinals than citizens of any other country. A justification for this is, that the Pope IS in fact the bishop of Rome, so should be fluent in Italian.
Somehow the Holy Spirit works through all of this. After all, the Gospels record St. Peter as an imperfect vessel.
Pray for necessary discernment for the cardinals.

Sat, March 9, 2013 @ 12:23 AM

6. Jim McCrea wrote:
This church has lasted for centuries. Could that be a case of a body at rest tends to stay at rest?

Sat, March 9, 2013 @ 6:37 PM

7. Cliff Borgerding wrote:
C. deVille, Sad & Teapot562 ... thank you for your insights. Cliff

Tue, March 12, 2013 @ 1:44 PM

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