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Pope Francis was back in the hospital for a day of tests in late November, and he disclosed he was suffering from an inflammation of the lungs. The news prompted another round of speculation about an eventual future conclave.

The 86-year-old Argentine pope has made a habit of bouncing back from illness, and I wish him good health and more years in office. But when I spent a couple of months in and around the Vatican this fall, I noticed that a pre-conclave vibe was slowly building.

Among those who follow Vatican affairs closely, the most common opinion I encountered was that if a conclave were to occur tomorrow, there would be no clear frontrunner to succeed Francis. On the contrary, their (and my) lists of papabili are quite long – a sign that the field is more open than outsiders might guess.

The dynamics of papal conclaves are notoriously difficult to predict. But in retrospect, certain underlying forces appear evident. In 1978, for example, John Paul I was elected as a compromise choice after two other Italian cardinals appeared deadlocked. When John Paul I died a month later (he had been in ill health, a fact unknown to most conclave participants), the world’s cardinals rebelled against the Italian power brokers and elected John Paul II, the first “foreign” pontiff in 455 years. In 2005, the cardinals, almost all of whom had been named by John Paul II, were looking for continuity and elected Pope Benedict, who for years had been JPII’s doctrinal enforcer. In 2013, the cardinals were frankly disoriented by the first papal resignation in modern times. They tended to blame Roman Curia officials for the missteps that dogged Benedict’s pontificate, and elected an outsider from Argentina.

Assuming a conclave takes place in the next few years, I see a couple of factors at play. One is geographical balance. For some time, the European influence in the College of Cardinals has been in decline. Largely thanks to Pope Francis appointments, the proportion of European cardinal-electors went from 52 percent in 2013 to 39 percent today. At present, cardinals from what is considered the developing world represent a majority among conclave voters; these are also areas where the church has experienced the greatest growth in recent years. All of that makes it more likely that cardinals from “the periphery,” to use a favorite Francis term, will have a greater voice in a conclave.

A second issue is debate over Pope Francis’ legacy, and whether it will be protected and developed by a successor. Francis has laid out his vision of a modern church that evangelizes by listening, welcoming everyone and reaching out to society’s marginalized, avoiding both doctrinal gatekeeping and culture wars. Not all cardinals have embraced this vision, and there are signs that some of the pope’s opponents are prepared to dig in for a battle in the next conclave.

To casual observers, the fact that Pope Francis has named 72 percent of current voting-age cardinals all but guarantees a like-minded successor. That assumption comes with many caveats, however. Keep in mind, for example, that more than 80 percent of voting-age cardinals came of age – and, more specifically, were ordained bishops – under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when candidates for bishop were subjected to a doctrinal litmus test by Roman Curia officials.

I think the cardinals will be looking for someone who can consolidate the changes brought by Pope Francis but who will manage Vatican affairs with more skill and operate with more discretion. With no clear frontrunner and an active vein of conservative opposition to Francis’ agenda, I believe there’s a real chance of a lengthier conclave the next time around.

Pope Benedict, it may be recalled, removed the option to move to a simple majority vote in case of a long and inconclusive conclave. Benedict restored the two-thirds majority as an absolute rule, which increases the likelihood that a) two strong candidates who continue to divide the vote might give way to a compromise choice, or b) a conclave could remain deadlocked for a long time. Given the modern pressures to wrap up a conclave within two or three days – before the international media tires of the story and pulls its anchors from Rome – I suspect the cardinals would rather quickly begin looking at the wider field. Although sequestered inside the Vatican walls, they are well aware that the world is watching and waiting, and that a conclave stalemate would be interpreted as a sign of conflict and division at the church’s highest levels.

There were reports this fall that Pope Francis intends to enlarge the pool of cardinal-electors and revamp the conclave procedures, perhaps radically. I doubt that sweeping changes are in store, and I doubt that increasing the number of voters would improve the process. As I’ve said many times, the main problem with conclaves is that participants are largely operating in the dark. The College of Cardinals may be the world’s most exclusive club, but it’s a club in which the members don’t really know each other. Except for Roman Curia officials, they rarely see each other; even more rarely do they visit fellow cardinals in their home dioceses, and therefore have little firsthand knowledge of any cardinal’s pastoral skills.

Inevitably this leads to cardinals gravitating to the most familiar figures: often, those who work in Rome or who are frequently called to participate and preside over Vatican events. In 2013, the conclave voting was preceded by five days of cardinal meetings designed to exchange ideas and opinions. I think the church would profit by extending this pre-conclave encounter to at least two weeks, and allowing more voices to be heard. Ahead of such a crucial event, it would be good for cardinals to listen not just to each other, but to a broader spectrum of Catholics.

There’s no question that much of the criticism of Pope Francis in recent years – in particular, criticism of his “mercy” approach to pastoral problems and his downplaying of doctrinal rules – has come from the United States, where conservative bishops have sometimes gone public with their objections.

In an August encounter just made public, Pope Francis addressed such antagonism in his usual direct fashion, decrying what he called a “strong reactionary attitude” among some U.S. pastors, and saying it reflects a “backward” attitude based more on ideology than faith.

The pope argued that doctrine is not a static reality but evolves. The church’s teaching on slavery is one example, he said, but not the only one: “Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin.”

“Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war,” he said.

The pope made the remarks in a Q and A session with fellow Jesuits in Portugal. A transcript in English was published by the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

Here is the exchange on the situation in the United States:

Q. Pope Francis, I would like to ask you a question as a religious brother. I am Francisco. Last year I spent a sabbatical year in the United States. There was one thing that made a great impression on me there, and at times made me suffer. I saw many, even bishops, criticizing your leadership of the Church. And many even accuse the Jesuits, who are usually a kind of critical resource of the pope, of not being so now. They would even like the Jesuits to criticize you explicitly. Do you miss the criticism that the Jesuits used to make of the pope, the Magisterium, the Vatican?
A. You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I would like to remind those people that indietrismo (being backward-looking) is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: doctrine evolves ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.
Let us get to specifics. Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before. As for slavery, some pontiffs before me tolerated it, but things are different today. So you change, you change, but with the criteria just mentioned. I like to use the “upward” image, that is, ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. Always on this path, starting from the root with sap that flows up and up, and that is why change is necessary.
Vincent of Lérins makes the comparison between human biological development and the transmission from one age to another of the depositum fidei, which grows and is consolidated with the passage of time. Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens. The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.
But some people opt out; they go backward; they are what I call “indietristi.” When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation. If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating. The problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying.
You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.
I want to pay tribute to Arrupe’s courage. When he became superior general, he found a Society of Jesus that was, so to speak, bogged down. General Ledóchowski had drafted the Epitome – do you young people know what the Epitome is? No? Nothing remains of the Epitome! It was a selection of the Constitutions and Rules, all mixed up. But Ledóchowski, who was very orderly, with the mentality of the time, said, “I am compiling it so that the Jesuits will be fully clear about everything they have to do.” And the first specimen he sent to a Benedictine abbot in Rome, a great friend of his, who replied with a note: “You have killed the Society with this.”
In other words, the Society of the Epitome was formed, the Society that I experienced in the novitiate, albeit with great teachers who were of great help, but some taught certain things that fossilized the Society. That was the spirituality that Arrupe received, and he had the courage to set it moving again. Somethings got out of hand, as is inevitable, such as the question of the Marxist analysis of reality. Then he had to clarify some matters, but he was a man who was able to look forward. And with what tools did Arrupe confront reality? With the Spiritual Exercises. In 1969 he founded the Ignatian Center for Spirituality. The secretary of this center, Fr. Luís Gonzalez Hernandez, was given the tasks of traveling around the world to give the Exercises and to open this new panorama.
You younger ones have not experienced these tensions, but what you say about some sectors in the United States reminds me of what we have already experienced with the Epitome, which generated a mentality that was all rigid and contorted. Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.
  • jthavis

A potentially divisive Synod of Bishops is fast approaching, and Pope Francis appears to be concerned about how the October assembly will be treated by the world’s press.

On Aug. 26 he gave a brief talk to a group of Italian journalists, who were at the Vatican to present the pope with an award for his contributions to dialogue and peace. The pope noted that he’s made it a policy to decline such accolades, but was making an exception – probably because he had a message to get across.

He began with a plea to avoid the “sins of journalism,” which in the pope’s catechism include disinformation, slander, defamation and “the love of scandal.” That last one is difficult, he added, because “scandal sells.”

The pope said the upcoming synod will focus on “listening to each other … in a mature way.” He asked journalists to respect that process, rather than look for conflict among participants:

"We have opened our doors, we have offered everyone the opportunity to participate, we have taken into account everyone's needs and suggestions. We want to contribute together to build the Church where everyone feels at home, where no-one is excluded.


Therefore I dare to ask you, the experts of journalism, for help: help me to narrate this process for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories."

Previous editions of the Synod of Bishops under Pope Francis have witnessed unusually open expression of opinions and occasional disputes, to a degree not seen since the synod was established in 1965.

All signs point to another lively assembly this fall, when the synod takes up the question of “synodality” itself – a topic that will probably include debate over the decision-making process in the church, clericalism, and the role of laity. Given the nature of the church and the make-up of the assembly, I expect the prevailing climate to be one of harmony. Given the nature of journalism, I expect reporters to focus on areas of disagreement.

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