The Jorge Mario Bergoglio who became Pope Francis earlier today must be quite accustomed to being the compromise choice, and the least divisive of the options available. He’s certainly been there before. In the 2005 conclave to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II, he had been the other or third option in an almost deadlocked liberal vs. conservative succession battle. The liberal forces had gathered around their long time champion, Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, while the conservative bloc had dug in behind John Paul II’s eminence grise, Joseph Ratzinger. Once it was clear that Martini couldn’t triumph, his supporters swung in behind Bergoglio in a last ditch anyone-but-Ratzinger exercise.
Under normal conditions, that situation in 2005 would have been enough to throw the papal selection into gridlock, and channelled the conclave towards a compromise candidate such as Bergoglio. However, John Paul II had realized that even stacking the College of Cardinals with conservatives couldn’t be assured to deliver a conservative supermajority – and so, he had changed the rules of papal selection to one of a simple majority. This enabled Ratzinger to triumph. On becoming Benedict XVI however, the new Pope changed the rules back again to a two thirds majority.
As a result, the compromise mechanism does seem to have kicked in this time. By the fifth ballot , it would appear that the frontrunners – Angelo Scola of Milan ( too much Ratzinger’s man) and Odilo Scherer of Brazil ( too close to the Roman Curia at the heart of the Church’s administrative woes) had cancelled each other out, and shown they could not summon a two thirds level of support. As I’d pointed out in my February 12 column, Bergoglio was going to be a contender again, if and when the conclave looked beyond Italy.
Even as late as the mid 2000s, Martini was still a leading contender in what became a three-way succession contest between himself, Ratzinger and the conservative Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Ultimately, the conservative bloc united behind Ratzinger. Martini died last August….So much for the Catholic Church’s lost opportunity. Now 76, Bergoglio will be a contender again this time. As Pope, he would maintain social and doctrinal conservatism, while being packageable as a modern response to the vibrancy of Catholicism in South America
Where I went wrong in that column though was in thinking that the two thirds rule might open the door to a more liberal compromise candidate than Bergoglio. Again, from the February 12 column:
If liberals want to throw the conclave into gridlock in order to block the likes of a Bergoglio, and thus push the result in the direction of a more liberal compromise candidate, they will certainly have more ability to do. And ironically, they will have Benedict XVI to thank.
Well, not so much. As it turns out Bergoglio was once again the top compromise. That’s surprising, in a way. He may have seemed the moderate soft conservative option (compared to Ratzinger) in 2005, Yet his socio-political and doctrinal conservatism would seem to make him less palatable to the remains of the liberal bloc (such as it is) this time around – especially given the extreme challenges now facing the Vatican. (Business as usual will no longer do.) Evidently not though, to the assembled cardinals.
Somehow the conclave convinced itself that if Benedict XVI is now too physically and mentally enfeebled to confront the Church’s myriad problems, then the man to pick up the reins is a 76 year old from Buenos Aires who will now have to face (a) the challenges of priestly abuse, (b) the knotty doctrinal issues around priestly celibacy that lie at the heart of the Church’s priestly recruitment crisis (c) the financial mismanagement and bureaucratic inertia within the Curia. And that’s even before you get to the Church’s problems with gay marriage, contraception and institutionalised misogyny.
No doubt, we will be hearing a lot in the coming days about that other elderly stop-gap papal figure, Angelo Roncalli, who was 77 when he became John XXIII in 1958 – and who ended up launching the most sweeping reform of the Catholic Church since the Reformation. Someone of the stature of John XXIII is needed again, merely to staunch the outflow from Catholic congregations. Even in Bergoglio’s South America, Catholicism is losing ground at an alarming rate to pentecostal Protestantism. It is a Church identified by Carlo Maria Martini in his last interview in August 2012 as being “200 years out of date.” As Martini put it:
Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous…The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops. The paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.”
Obviously, Pope Francis could surprise everyone and become a revolutionary figure along the lines of John XXIII. There is nothing in his track record however, to indicate that ability, or inclination.