Handicapping the Papabili


By Steven Shea

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, nearly a half century ago, he said he wanted to open the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let in some "fresh air." His successor Pope Paul VI had the difficult task of deciding how much to leave the windows ajar. He left them open when it came to the church’s liturgy and its relationship to other faiths, but on matters relating to sexuality and gender the windows were barely cracked. He disappointed both traditional and progressive Catholics. When John Paul II was elected he threw the windows closed, nailed them shut, and bricked them over. His agenda, in direct contradiction to Vatican II, was to centralize church power in the Vatican. Dissatisfied even then, John Paul II tried to pump out some of the fresh air that previously had made its way in. No one, other than ardent progressive Catholics, seemed to mind the reactionary nature of his papacy. In fact, no one even seemed to notice. With his outstanding media presence, the press ate up his every move, just as it ate up every move of that other former actor Ronald Reagan. Catholics and even non-Catholics loved John Paul II because he looked like what they thought a pope should look like. What he stood for seemed to be irrelevant to them since, outside of the former Soviet bloc, it had little or no impact on their daily lives. This is the paradox of his papacy. Catholics gave John Paul II great adulation precisely because today, unlike previous ages, the church has so little power to enforce its teachings on the daily lives of the faithful. If it had he would not have been so popular. Ham actor to the end, John Paul II loved adulation, but he wanted obedience too. Now the College of Cardinals will elect someone who will either reopen the windows of change or keep them closed.

What should the next pope look like? Ideally, the new pope should be in his mid to late-sixties, be in excellent health, have a strong background in theology, speak multiple languages, and have outstanding media skills. This last qualification is John Paul II’s contribution to the papal profile. There is no way someone as media challenged as Paul VI could be elected pope today. In the age of 24-hour, satellite, news networks a pope has to be able to hold his own on television.

Who then might the next pope be? Readers old enough to remember the conclaves of 1978 will recall that numerous predictions in the press were hopelessly wrong. Not only did the supposed frontrunners not emerge as pope, but, according to accounts from inside the conclaves, many of them got few or no votes. Do not be surprised if it is the same this time. The chances that the next pope will be an American are zero. No one wants a pope from the world’s only superpower. In 1978 the American cardinals were a modestly talented bunch, and the same is true now. Also, the chances of another pope from the old Soviet bloc countries would seem to be remote.

Recently, the press has touted German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "the panzer kardinal," as front runner. Ratzinger’s election is every progressive Catholic’s worst nightmare. Forty years ago he was counted among the progressives at Vatican II, but he was so horrified by Europe’s student rebellion of 1968 he turned far to the right. In 1978 he was instrumental in John Paul II’s election. John Paul II rewarded him with the office of Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, or, as it was known in a previous age, the Inquisition. As grand inquisitor, Ratzinger cracked down hard on liberal Catholic theologians and activists worldwide. At 77 and in declining health, he is almost certainly too old and controversial to be elected. Also, it is inconceivable that a former soldier of Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich could be elected pope. The former anti-aircraft gunner said last week that the church was full of "filth." As pope he would set his sights on shooting down dirty heretics.

More likely is the election of a Ratzinger protégé, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna. He was chosen by him to be editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. At only 60 years old, he is young and has shown few media skills. Cardinal Phillippe Barbarin is a conservative from France. He is a marathon runner with good media skills, but, at 54, he is almost certainly too young.

Another conservative favorite is Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice. Since Venice produced three of the last eight popes he must be taken seriously as a candidate. He is the right age, 64, and has taught theology. Still, he has made it clear he backs Schonborn. Three other frequently mentioned Italian Cardinals, Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, Camilo Ruini of Rome and Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano are old, very conservative, and backward looking. Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, is another prominent Italian conservative. Indeed he was considered the frontrunner a few years ago. His recent record is unspectacular. He put out a document on the devil that was so Medieval in content and tone the Italian press turned him in to a laughing stock. Tettamanzi literally means "bull’s tits" in Italian. That alone should hurt his chances.

His predecessor as Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini is more impressive. He is a leading biblical scholar and theologian who has headed two of the most prestigious theological schools in Rome. He is fluent in over a dozen languages, and his media skills are superb. He also does an outstanding job communicating to young people, a very rare commodity in cynical Europe. With credentials like that he should be elected on the first ballot. Better still, the ancient prophecy of Saint Malachy predicted the next pope would reflect, "the glory of the olive." Martini would seem to fit that description perfectly. Unfortunately, he is 77 and in declining health. The reactionaries in the conclave will try to stop this champion of Catholic progressives. Another progressive is Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium. He is a major thinker with excellent media skills. On the negative side, he has a reputation as a loner, and he had a heart attack eight years ago.

Twenty years ago I told a friend the next pope would almost certainly come from Latin American. Three of the most frequently mentioned Latin American candidates are Cardinals Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City, Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Columbia, and Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. All three of them showed an alarming lack of media savvy when they defended the infamous Cardinal Bernard Law during Boston’s child sexual abuse scandal. Like Cardinal Law, they attacked the press for interfering in Catholic Church affairs. From Argentina, a more likely candidate is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aries. He is the right age, 68, and his Italian ancestry can only be considered a plus. From Brazil, Cardinal Claudio Hummes is another strong candidate. At 70, he is from the world’s largest Catholic country and has a long record of concern for the poor.

From India, Cardinal Ivan Dias has been touted as a conservative candidate. He is multilingual and the right age, 69. His ties to the ultraconservative Legionaries of Christ might hurt his chances. The Legion’s founder has repeatedly been accused of child sex abuse, but with protection from John Paul II he has escaped punishment.

If the next pope is an African it will likely be Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. His numerous contacts in the Islamic world are a prized commodity right now. An African pope would certainly inspire conversions to Catholicism in Africa. Still, Arinze pulls no punches when speaking his mind. A Georgetown University audience in Washington D.C. recently booed him when he made a ferocious attack on the sexual revolution. That endeared him to conservatives, but his blunt speech may cause some conclave voters to think twice. As a convert, he might scare off some voters.

Two names from Islamic countries that have received little mention in the press could be sleeper candidates. Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja comes from Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic country. His concern for the poor and his knowledge of Islam could be attractive to conclave voters. An even more daring choice would be Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako of Sudan. Like Indonesia, Sudan is one of the world’s poorest countries and a place where the Catholic minority is in constant peril. The previous conclave elected a man from a country where the Catholic Church was oppressed. If the same criterion holds this time Darmaatmadja or Zubeir Wako could get some votes.

The conclave looks wide open. There is no obvious frontrunner. There will be one immediate clue to what the next papacy will be like. Every new pope’s first act is to choose his papal name. If he takes the name John Paul III expect a clone of his immediate predecessor. A Pope Pius XIII would be even more conservative. A John XXIV would be a progressive reformer. If he takes any other name he may have some surprises for everyone.

Steven Shea is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee, WI. He was born and raised in Galesburg. He graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy, Costa Catholic, and GHS, class of 78. He has been an amateur Vatican watcher his entire adult life.