ROME – Whenever the next papal election occurs, in the run-up to the big vote airwaves and column inches will be full of traditional wisdom about conclaves, often expressed in familiar soundbites destined to be recycled almost endlessly.
One such classic is, “He who enters a conclave as a pope exits as a cardinal,” usually taken to mean that favorites don’t win, and that the result will come as a surprise. Another is the vintage Italian saying, “You always follow a fat pope with a thin one,” meaning that the next pope will represent a departure from the one who came before.
Then, of course, there’s the oft-repeated maxim “those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know,” suggesting it’s impossible to predict the outcome of a conclave because the only people who matter don’t reveal their thinking, and everyone else is simply serving up meaningless chatter.
In that galaxy of purported wisdom, for the last 100 years or so there’s been another virtually iron-clad axiom, which goes like this: “There can’t be an American pope.” Among other considerations, the assumption is that the Vatican can’t have a “superpower pope,” because it would fatally compromise its geopolitical and diplomatic independence.
Here’s the good news for Americans, however: Most of those other bits of alleged wisdom are at least partly bunk, so there’s no special reason to believe the one about Americans holds much water either.
Take the bit about entering as a pope and exiting as a cardinal. Over the last 100 years, from 1922 to 2022, there have been eight papal elections, and clear front-runners actually prevailed in three of them: Pius XII in 1939, Paul VI in 1963 and Benedict XVI in 2005. In three other cases, the winner was only a moderate surprise, meaning somebody who was considered a second-tier candidate before the fact: Pius XI, John Paul I and Francis.
Only in two cases over the last century, John XXIII and John Paul II, could the winner be described as a genuine surprise.
Following a fat pope with a thin one? Well, Pius XI largely continued the policies of Benedict XV, Pius XII was already in charge of Vatican diplomacy before he was elected, Paul VI implemented the vision for Vatican II launched by John XXIII, and Benedict XVI had already been the intellectual architect of John Paul II’s reign. Of course, we don’t know how John Paul I would have turned out.
Perhaps only with John XXIII, John Paul II and Francis over the last 100 years could the cardinals be said to have opted for a clear break, and even then, the depth of the change probably wasn’t entirely clear in the moment. It’s worth recalling, for example, that many observers regarded Bergoglio in Argentina in 2005 as a “John Paul II bishop” at odds with his more liberal confreres.
In other words, discontinuity isn’t written into the stars either.
As for “those who know not talking,” that might have been true some time ago, but this is the 21st century. Ease of travel now means cardinals gather in Rome well before the actual conclave starts, and they actually talk a lot before they file into the Sistine Chapel.
They speak to one another during daily general congregation meetings, and their comments almost always leak out in real time. Many also give talks around Rome, celebrate Masses, hold press briefings, and otherwise make themselves available. They also meet privately with one another, in twos and threes and tens and twenties, and more often than not, the contents of those sessions also make the rounds.
Decoding what’s being said usually isn’t all that arduous. For instance, if a cardinal says, “What the church needs is a pastoral figure,” they usually mean a moderate-to-liberal. If he says, “We need clarity,” that generally means a more conservative option.
It’s true, of course, they’re not going to say out loud “I plan to vote for X,” but that doesn’t mean pope-watchers are operating in a complete vacuum.
That brings us to the old saw about Americans.
As an historical matter, the election of Karol Wojtyla of Poland in 1978 ended the Italian monopoly on the papacy, just as the choice of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina in 2013 broke the European stranglehold. We’re now in an era in which the next pope could come from anywhere.
Moreover, the informal veto against a “superpower pope” doesn’t have the same bite because today we live in a multipolar world, in which there no longer two dominant blocs but multiple centers of power and influence. If you’re going to ban an American pope, then you’d probably have to do the same thing for China and Russia, and perhaps a few of the emerging new superpowers such as India and Brazil, and, hypothetically anyway, the EU too – and once you start down that path, you’re seriously limiting the talent pool.
To prove the point, it’s worth remembering that in the conclave of 2013 which elected Francis, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston got some serious attention, and many observers believe that if the cardinals hadn’t quickly coalesced around Bergoglio, he might have been a real possibility.
Granted, the Italians refer to O’Malley as il cardinale meno americano tra gli americani, meaning “the least American cardinal among the Americans,” because of his command of languages, his deep global experience and his brown Capuchin habit and beard that remind locals of Padre Pio. The fact is, however, he’s still an American, but nobody anymore thinks that makes him unelectable.
The bottom line is this: When the time comes, it’s always worth considering what conventional wisdom might have to say. Just remember that while popes may be infallible, conclave soundbites are anything but.