Cardinals meet to choose pope

Irish Cardinal Sean Baptist Brady arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican today. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

Irish Cardinal Sean Baptist Brady arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican today. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters


More than 150 cardinals met today in the Vatican’s Synod Hall for arguably the most important Congregation of Cardinals since Vatican Council II in the 1960s.

With the shock waves prompted by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI still crashing right across the 1.1 billion strong, universal Catholic Church, the cardinals begin the difficult task of identifying a successor.

While the conclave in the Sistine Chapel represents that spiritual moment when, with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the cardinals elect the next pope, the business of identifying the church’s needs and consequently indicating suitable candidates starts in deadly earnest this morning. Put it another way: in the Sistine the cardinals vote, while at these “general congregations” they jaw-jaw.

By last Wednesday, there were already 144 cardinals in Rome, half of whom are from abroad so we know that the caucuses of “jaw-jaw” and exchange of ideas have already begun, particularly among the North Americans and Latin Americans. In a febrile Rome atmosphere where media interviews with cardinal electors outnumber interviews with AS Roma or Lazio footballers by two to one, many of the men who will elect the next pope have already indicated their thinking about this dramatic state of the union church moment.

Upside down

Two considerations dominate the hour. The first is that the “resignation/abdication” of Benedict has turned the Catholic world upside down. If a pope can resign, then anything can happen.

The Catholic faithful worldwide have just experienced something similar to the Japanese on the morning of January 1st, 1946, when the Emperor Showa Hirohito issued an imperial “Humanity Declaration”, stating that he was not a living God. It is at least arguable that when Benedict tendered his “resignation/abdication” in the very “human” manner of the chief executive of a major multinational, he cut the umbilical cord on the notion that he was the anointed one, a semi-divine monarch. “God’s Rottweiler” all of a sudden turned into the “Dowager King”, or to put it more correctly, the Roman Pontiff Emeritus.

Debate will rage long and hard about the full significance and impact of Benedict’s remarkable gesture. What is clear, as one cardinal privately said this week, is that short of euthanasia, gay marriage and the freezing of human embryos, just about everything could now be up for discussion – the celibacy of the priesthood, teaching on homosexuality, women priests?


Up for discussion, too, will be the question of the governance of the church. If the resignation remains an epic conundrum, there is no mystery about Vatileaks. To suggest that the crisis in Holy See affairs, prompted by Vatileaks and the consequent conviction of Benedict’s butler for stealing, is simply a piece of “typical Italian nonsense” is to miss the point. “Vatileaks” is as crucial to church history as was Watergate to US president Richard Nixon or Pearl Harbour to the second World War.

This last week has been marked by a seemingly endless succession of alarmist statements from cardinals concerning the state of the church. South African Wilfrid Napier called it a “profound crisis”. North American Francis George said “governance is the issue”. Englishman Cormac Murphy-O’Connor spoke of the need for “renewal” and “reform” in the government of the church. Even the editor of Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano acknowledged that “the governance of the ship of St Peter” will be a key conclave issue.

Not for nothing the critical voices are non-Italian voices. Perhaps the anomaly of a conclave where Italy has 28 elector cardinals, while Latin America, representing more than half the world’s Catholics, has only 21, may be discussed. France has four cardinals, Germany six and Spain five – does this make sense?

In an interview with Radio Il Sole 24 this week, dissident theologian and Benedict’s former colleague Hans Küng spelt out one of the most oft repeated observations about the Benedict pontificate: “The pope proved that what lots of people in the curia said about him was simply true, namely this pope did not govern . . . [During his pontificate] he wrote three books about Christ, he used his free time to study and write but not to govern.”

Critics argue that, in the absence of Benedict, his secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, abused his position and caused much damage. Can the church now find a good and holy man who is also politically savvy?

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