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ROME – President Joe Biden’s announcement this week that he’ll seek a second term is, among other things, a reminder of the towering importance of circumstance in determining political fortunes.
Prior to 2020, the book on Biden was that he may be an effective behind-the-scenes figure, but he’s a dreadful candidate – uncharismatic, prone to meandering oratory that reminds no one of the Gettysburg Address, and so conventional as to be functionally invisible. He’d sought the presidency twice, and was an also-ran in both 1988 and 2008.
Then, Donald Trump happened.
After four years of “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” many Amercians were in the mood for boring, stable and sober. We’ll see if Trump remains Biden’s gift that keeps on giving, inadvertently contributing to a reelection which, with an approval rating currently at 39 percent, otherwise might seem daunting.
These thoughts come to mind this weekend as Pope Francis is in Hungary, where his host is the 70-year-old Cardinal Péter Erdő of Budapest, who figures on many handicapping lists of possible successors to Francis, especially among Catholics of a more conservative disposition. Today Erdő is scheduled to deliver a brief word of thanks to the pope after his Mass in Budapest’s Kossuth Lajos Square, in front of the Hungarian parliament building.
Much like Biden, Erdő gets high marks for leadership off the stage, but isn’t the kind of guy to turn the world on with his smile.
He’s seen as reserved, buttoned-down, and a company man, someone with an almost genetic predisposition for staying out of the spotlight. In other eras, he’s the sort of personality who might be viewed by conoscenti as a better candidate for Secretary of State or some other senior Vatican post, rather than as the out-front public face of the Church.
Yet these aren’t exactly ordinary times in Catholicism.
After a decade of spills, thrills and chills under Francis, it may well be that cardinals who take part in the next conclave are in the mood for a less high-octane papacy. Whether they support the pontiff’s progressive agenda or not, many may believe the church needs a chance to catch its breath, to calm down after the upheaval and agitation of the Francis era.
Like in American politics four years ago, boring may suddenly seem sexy.
Indeed, that’s part of the logic one often hears among Pope Francis supporters for Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the current Secretary of State, as a papabile, or papal candidate. As one wag put it recently, Parolin, 68, is like Francis on Prozac – the same substance, but without the dizzying emotional highs and lows.
For those who’d like to see Catholicism move in a slightly more traditional direction, much the same thing could be said of Erdő. If circumstances do tempt his fellow cardinals to take a careful look, they may find much to like.
For one thing, Erdő is as a gifted canon lawyer. After a legislative frenzy under Francis, who’s issued more motu proprio, meaning amendments to church law on his own initiative, than all his recent predecessors combined, having someone in charge who can consolidate and rationalize the legal system might be no bad thing.
Moreover, Erdő ticks many of the right boxes on papal handicapping forms.
He doesn’t come from a superpower, so his election wouldn’t automatically create diplomatic or geopolitical headaches. At 70 he’s more or less the right age, young enough that he’d be able to govern effectively for some time, but not so young that his papacy would seem eternal. He’s also said to be reasonably fluent in seven languages, including both English and Russian.
(He knows the United States, by the way, having won research grants in 1995 and 1996 to study at the University of California in Berkeley.)
Erdő has been on the fast track his entire career. In 2001, while he was still an auxiliary bishop and before he’d turned 50, he was elected President of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe, and was reelected in 2006. In 2002, he was named the Archbishop of Hungary’s premier see at the tender age of 50, and made a cardinal a year later. At 52, he was the youngest cardinal to participate in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI in 2005.
Three other qualities recommend Erdő.
First, he comes from a martyred church at a time when anti-Christian persecution is on the rise globally. The symbol of Hungarian Catholicism’s suffering under the Soviets is Cardinal József Mindszenty, who was tortured and sentenced to life in prison by a Communist kangaroo court, took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years, and died in exile in Vienna in 1975. Erdő inherited Mindszenty’s pectoral cross and wears it every year on May 6, the anniversary of Mindszenty’s death.
Second, as an Hungarian, Erdő represents the intersection of eastern and western Christianity. He’s a leader in relations with the Orthodox churches, and is seen as on especially good terms with the Russians. Last year, after Pope Francis shelved plans for a meeting with Russian Patriarch Kirill, Erdő met Metropolitan Hilarion, Kirill’s top deputy, during a trip to Hungary.
Indeed, Erdő might be among the very few papal contenders who’d be seen favorably both by Ukrainians, grateful for the warm welcome for Ukrainian refugees in Hungary, and by Russians.
Third, despite his conservative inclinations, Erdő is also seen as a pragmatist who can forge consensus.
During the tumultuous Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015 he was the relator, a key figure who synthesizes the results of the debates. His conclusions tried to strike a balance between those with their foot on the gas vis-à-vis communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and those with their foot on the brake; later, when Francis issued Amoris Laetitia, Erdő carefully avoided joining the critics and tried to emphasize the document’s positive points.
Of course, the trash heaps of history are littered with the carcasses of figures who once seemed credible papal candidates but whose moments just never came. It’s also worth noting that simply electing a shy, somewhat cerebral figure who shuns celebrity is no guarantee of a calm papacy – for proof of the point, see the Benedict XVI years.
Yet whether or not Erdő becomes king, he’s at least well-positioned to be a kingmaker. That alone lends his proximity to Francis this weekend extra interest.