The Conclave, the Cardinals and politics

There has been an avalanche of media coverage about the election of a new Pope, about the conclave, the word in Latin means, “with a key” – the Cardinal electors will be locked away. Meanwhile, the media loves to speculate about the leading candidates, the scandals, the pageantry, and the smoke. (White: we have a Pope. Black: no Pope yet.) It’s great theater and the media loves it.

My first thought was to apologize to my non-Catholic and my non-believing readers for such a blatantly Catholic column, but my second more sober thought is that there is no need. Someone once said, whether you hate the Roman Church or love the Roman Church, you cannot avoid the Roman Church. She sits like a mountain-sized rock plumb in the middle of Western history. Besides the Catholic Church is big: 1.2 billion members; its active members today, however, are more likely to be found in parts of South Africa, South America and the Philippines.

The Church is far from monolithic; it is greatly diverse as is the College of Cardinals. In the media’s shorthand there are “liberals” and “conservatives.” The media typically sidesteps the nuances and simplifies, so permit me to do the same.

Catholic liberals would like their Church to permit married and eventually women priests. They would be open to same sex marriage and an abolition of the Church’s labeling of homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered” – and in general its prejudice against gays. Of course they would advocate for the Church to abandon its outdated teachings on birth control; something that childbearing Catholics have done long ago.

Conservative Catholics, on the other hand, would hold the opposite. They think the celibate male priesthood is God’s holy will. That homosexuality is indeed “intrinsically disordered” and that same sex marriage threatens family life. As for birth control, sexually active conservatives believe it’s inherently wrong. Most of them practice the rhythm method (also known as Vatican Roulette) and have multiple babies to prove it.

I’m hoping for a non-European Pope, but the Italians think they own the papacy and they want it back. There are 28 Italian electors in the Conclave. That’s 24 percent of the electors. Angelo Scola of Milan is a favorite. He is a top scholar on Islam and on Christian Muslim dialogue. Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council on Culture will be the smartest guy in the Sistine Chapel, but has little pastoral experience. One of the non-Europeans in contention is Mark Quellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec and now head of the powerful Congregation of Bishops.

As for an American, Timothy Dolan of New York said he has as much chance of being pope as he would of being the Yankees’ next shortstop. Paddy Power, Ireland’s largest bookmaker has odds on all the candidates. You can look them up. This bookmaking, the intrigue and vote gathering doesn’t seem to leave much room for the Holy Spirit, does it? But isn’t it fun?

How could you tell a “liberal” Pope? Some clues. Look for the name the new Pope picks for himself. If he (unfortunately, it’s always a “he”) wants to be known as Pope John XXIV, liberal Catholics can shout from the rooftops and dance in the streets. If however he selects the name Pius XIII, the liberals should cry bitter tears.

But even a “liberal” Pope won’t be able to do much. The Vatican is an enormous bureaucracy and as Notre Dame’s Father McBrien said, “it moves with the agility of an arthritic elephant.” The best a “liberal” pope could do would be to call another ecumenical council. But not a Vatican III. How about a Sidney I? A Rio de Janerio I? Or a Notre Dame I? That would shake up the old boys at the Vatican.

Then there are Cardinals whom many would want to keep out of the conclave. One of those is the American Roger Mahony because of his role in shielding pedophile priests. But Mahony said he will not disqualify himself and will head to Rome to vote for the next pope. Mahony, however, is not the only cardinal elector whom many don’t want at the conclave. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has accused Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga from Honduras of being anti-Semitic. Maradiaga has little chance of being elected pope, but there are those who would like him to stay home. My guess is that like Mahony he won’t; they’ll both be there in their red robes and ribbons. Cardinal Keith O’Brien of the UK, however, accused of inappropriate homosexual acts, will stay at home and watch for the smoke on TV.

Perhaps the most significant thing Pope Benedict did as Pope was to resign. His resignation, the first in 600 years, has demystified the papacy. He saw his predecessor, John Paul II, hobbled by old age and Parkinson’s and he certainly should have resigned. But, as Andrew Sullivan, a Gay Catholic activist, has noted, Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope was quick to zoom in on any hint of heresy, but turned a blind eye to the monstrous rapes of many children.

Anyway, ex-Pope Benedict won’t be at the Conclave at which the Cardinal electors are locked up away from the world. He too will have to look for the white smoke on television.

It’s a great global and medieval spectacle, but as it unfolds pray that God’s Holy Spirit, despite the scandals, the intrigue and the politicking, will give us a Pope who will help heal our troubled world. It has happened before.

Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website