The longer the conclave lasts, the bigger the surprise is likely to be

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo (Photo: CNS)

I am asked by a non-Catholic friend for comments on the conclave. It’s difficult to comment because the media interpret everything along the line of bipolar oppositions, and of course it’s much more complicated than that. But anyway, here is my five cents worth for those who are interested.

1. Do not believe anything along the lines of a conservative/progressive clash. From the point of view of the secular world, all the cardinals are conservative: there is just not going to be a pope who changes Catholic doctrine, because popes are chosen among people who are Catholics. The question is: what kind of conservative is he likely to be?

2. The real standoff is between the curial cardinals and those who want reform. But the reformers are “progresssive” only in the sense that they want to clear out corruption and incompetence in the curia. In doctrinal terms they tend to be both conservative and “evangelical”, ie marked by a willingness to be more confrontational with regard to the aggressively secular, western elites.

3. The curial cardinals, traditionally styled as conservative by the media, are conservative only in the sense they want business as usual: ie for power to remain in their hands. Having not much in the way of convictions, they are not conservative in any ideological sense; indeed, the pugnacious attitudes of those I have termed “evangelical” make them nervous, because they are trained as diplomats and power brokers and they like to avoid confrontation with the above-mentioned secular elites, among whom they feel at ease.

It is worth noting that many journalists are floundering in attempting to navigate the sea of Church politics because they are only used to dealing with the dichotomy between the “progressive”, pastoral archbishops of major worldwide sees, versus “conservative” curialists. This schema, inherited from the 60s and 70s, is now totally irrelevant. In its stead, the theme of European/North American cardinals versus those from the global south has reared its head. But in itself this too is beside the point. The last two elections have made anything possible geographically by breaking the Italian stranglehold. But the cardinals will not choose according to geographical criteria: if an African, or an Asian or a South American is elected, it will be because of his personal qualities and where he stands on the issues I raise above, not of the colour of his skin. And this is as it ought to be.

So, the choice is indeed between change and more of the same. But the change in question will not be doctrinal but one of personnel and management style. It seems that as of now Cardinal Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is the favoured candidate of the reformers, and Cardinal Scherer, the Brazilian, that of the “business as usual” crowd. The latter are so discredited that they know that one of their own cannot win, and hence they are trying to talk up Scherer as a liberal, so as to gain credibility for him with the media and with the small remnant of moderately liberal cardinals. In reality they favour him because they think they can control him.

It must be stressed that “liberal” in this context means soft conservatism rather than the fully fledged counter-reformers. They are not liberals as that term is understood in US or European politics: the New York Times is not fielding a candidate. The most liberal wing in the College has been deprived of a leader by the death of Cardinal Martini, who in any case was unable to prevent Ratzinger’s election last time round. Since then, several prominent “Martinians” have reached the age limit or otherwise passed from the scene. Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and the Belgian Cardinal Danneels (the latter of whom was massively influential in Europe for decades) have suffered serious damage to their prestige from being exposed as protectors of pedophile priests.

My feeling is that Cardinal Scherer has no real chance because too many cardinals are totally browned off with decades of mismanagement and see through the manoeuvre. If the election happens quickly (on the second day) it will probably be Scola, but if it drags on beyond Wednesday this is likely to mean that the alliance of the curialists and the progressive rump has succeeded in blocking him. This may mean that they resign themselves to a non-Italian representative of the same camp – Scola, as an Italian, knows where the bodies are buried – and in this case I foresee the election of Canadian Ouellet, the Hungarian Erdo or, as an outsider, Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley (Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and the Sri Lankan Cardinal Ranjith are too confrontational, I think, to have a serious chance). It they succeed in blocking these (they are all “Ratzingerian” in terms of theology”) then all bets are off. The longer the conclave lasts, the bigger the surprise is likely to be.