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.