Three bogus objections to thinking about the next pope

Three bogus objections to thinking about the next pope

Cardinals and bishops wait for the start of a consistory in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP.)

Three common objections that arise anytime the conversation turns to the next pope turn out to be all bunk.

News Analysis

ROME – This week I participated in a panel discussion here in Rome to present a new book by a friend and colleague, Edward Pentin, titled The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates, to be published by Sophia Press on August 4.

As I said that night, the book reflects a fairly conservative view on the state of the Church. Whatever one makes of that perspective, however, it’s well-informed and well-researched, and there’s much to learn about the 19 cardinals Pentin presents as papabili, meaning possible future popes.

For now, I’ll stay out of the weeds about specific candidates. For the record, I find most of Pentin’s selections plausible, a few debatable and a couple just silly, but we can leave that discussion for another day. Here, I want to address three common objections that arise anytime the conversation turns to the next pope. I heard them when I published my book Conclave under St. John Paul II 20 years ago, they’re being said today about Pentin’s book, and they’ll surface again whenever someone else does something similar.

To cut to the chase, they’re all bunk.

First, it’s often objected that to speculate about a future pope while the current pope is still alive is disrespectful and disloyal, even tantamount to a political attack on the pope’s leadership. Of course it could be all of these things, depending on who’s doing it and why, but in principle it doesn’t have be any of the above.

If you believe the direction of the Catholic Church matters, no single figure has more impact on setting a direction than the pope, and therefore the choice of who occupies the office is monumentally important. The last thing you want is for the cardinals who will make that choice – and the lone certainty here is that one day, they will have to make it – to be poorly informed about their alternatives.

I can report that the cardinals I know who’ve participated in a conclave were hungry for as much information as they could acquire, because they realized this was probably the single most important decision they’d ever make. They took the process seriously, and they were grateful for reliable background or perspective that could inform their deliberations. That’s likely to be all the more true next time, given that so many of today’s cardinals don’t know one another well.

People often ask, “Yeah, but why now? Why not wait until the papacy is nearing the end?” The answer is, unlike an American presidency, we have no idea when a given papacy may end, and waiting for the fin du régime may be too late for the sort of meticulous research and analysis that actually would be helpful.

Second, there’s the standard refrain that speculating about the next pope is futile, since nobody knows what’s going to happen. Many cite the old Italian saw, “he who enters a conclave as a pope exits a cardinal,” to accent the unpredictability of the process.

Again, obviously it’s true that surprises are always possible. It’s worth nothing, however, that of the last six papal elections, the clear pre-conclave favorite won twice – Paul VI and Benedict XVI – while “B list” figures, mentioned as more remote possibilities, won another two times – John Paul I and Francis. Only in two cases did real dark horse candidates prevail, with John XXIII and John Paul II.

The real point, however, is that if we were to take the possibility of surprise as a reason not to think about the future, there would be no crop forecasts, no economic projections, no models for the progression of a disease – for that matter, there wouldn’t even be weather reports.

Sure, expert predictions can be wildly wrong. But as Dwight Eisenhower famously put it, “In preparing for battle, I’ve always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The more carefully the Church has thought about a looming crossroads, the better prepared it will be to adapt when the unexpected occurs.

Finally, there’s the pious objection that talking about a conclave in human terms – politics, rival camps, clashing perspectives and priorities, and so on – betrays a deficit of faith, because the Church believes the selection of a pope occurs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In truth, it’s the failure to factor in those human elements that betokens a lack of faith, or at least understanding of the faith, because we’re Catholics, not Docetists. The Catholic understanding, as famously articulated by Aquinas, is gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit, meaning “grace does not eliminate nature but perfects it.”

In other words, the fact there’s a divine element to the life of the Church, including a conclave, doesn’t make it any less human, and therefore the normal dynamics of institutional sociology and political science apply here too. To pretend otherwise is a prescription for all sorts of mischief, not just in thinking about papal elections but virtually everything.

Bottom line: In principle, reflection on the choices awaiting cardinals during the next conclave is not only legitimate but essential.

Of course, if a given contribution to that discussion is ill-informed, polemical or sloppy, it can be a distraction, but assuming it’s reasonably well-researched and responsible, then it’s a vital public service, and the journalists, researchers and other observers who produce such works shouldn’t have to face bogus blowback for the mere fact of having done so.

None of this tells you who the next pope will be. It does, however, at least confirm you’re not doing anything wrong by wondering.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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