21st Century Pope – The Challenge of the Coming Conclave

21st Century Pope – The Challenge of the Coming Conclave


John Paul II had been Bishop of Rome and 262nd Pope – Leader of the Catholic Church – for twenty five years. One of the most radical, strategic and dominant figures in the history of the modern church and a major figure in the last quarter of the twentieth century for a variety of reasons, not least his contributions to the development of Poland and to the fall of communism and his focus on peace.

But he is frail as a result of a broken hip, ill with what appears to be Parkinson’s disease [1] and suffering from an acknowledged irritable bowel syndrome [2]. He is also carrying the scar and consequences of an assassination attempt from May 1981 and the scars of six surgical procedures. His physical frailty should not mask his intellectual clarity, which until recently has remained perspicacious, or his determination – everyone close to him confidently expects him to be present and active at the forthcoming beatification of Mother Teresa and the ceremony to recognise the new cardinals. After all, the Vatican proverb is clear – “a Pope is only sick after he has died”

Some commentators have suggested that his illness may lead to abdication, which two Popes have done in the past [3]. However, John Paul himself has ruled out this option, making clear that it is the burden of a Pontiff to live out his life in the truth of the word and in the eyes of the world [4]. Indeed, his personal determination to see through the celebration of his twenty five years as Pontiff is evident in comments he has made to close friends. He is reported to have said that “if the Lord chooses to take me now, he will have one angry Pontiff at his gates.”

John Paul’s Contribution

John Paul II (formerly Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow in Poland) was elected on 16th October 1978 at the age of 58 – the first non Italian Pope for 455 years and the youngest for 130 years. The election followed the sudden and unexpected death of John Paul I, who died of natural causes [5] thirty three days after his election earlier in the same year.

Since his election John Paul II has:

“¢ Travelled and said mass in 140 countries in over 100 separate foreign trips
“¢ Issued 19 Papal encyclicals, documents which establish the authoritative teaching of the church
“¢ Appointed all but 5 of the 120 cardinals who could elect his successor [6]
“¢ Appointed app. 3,000 of the 4,200 bishops within the global church
“¢ Massively encouraged church attendance, which has increased dramatically during his pontificate, mainly in the developing world
“¢ Focused recruitment in Latin America, which now accounts for 50% of church membership; when we add Africa and Asia to Latin America we can account for two thirds of all churchgoers – this is the primary base for the modern church
“¢ Become the longest serving Pope of the last century, having served for twice the average of twentieth century Popes (average = 10.5 years) and three times the average of all Popes (average = 7.3 years)
“¢ Spent app. 15% of his time outside of the Vatican
“¢ Read over 20,000 addresses
“¢ His general audiences in the Vatican have involved more than 20 million persons
“¢ Beatified some 1000 persons and canonized 350 saints
“¢ Had talks with over 800 Heads of State or Government Ministers

His teaching has been conservative – no women in the priesthood, against abortion and contraception, against homosexuality and against changes in the basic dogma’s of the church. This has angered liberals, who seek to “modernise” the Church. His position is that Catholicism is Catholicism and not some liberal moderate religion – of you don’t like it, pray for guidance or leave. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “this Pope is not for turning” – nothing will shift his position.

The Process of electing a Pope – the Conclave

One of John Paul’s most important contributions to the future is his modernisation of the process for electing his successor – the Papal conclave (from the Latin, meaning “with the key”), the first of which was held in 1378. Most modern Popes rewrite the rules of the conclave, but none have done so with so much attention to detail.

On the death of a Pope, the cardinals gather in Rome to celebrate the life of the late Pope and to elect his successor. They do so in secret in a Papal conclave. The process is shrouded with mystique, with secrecy being required under ecclesiastical law – the punishment for breaking the vows of silence associated with the conclave is excommunication.

Historically, all living cardinals were locked in the Sistine Chapel, using camp beds and “brought in” and basic meals, and, after a period of reflection on the state of the church and the development of a profile of the character of the Pope needed, the process of election begins. Candidates are nominated, but do not canvas or solicit the position. Ballots are secret and they continue until the new Pope is chosen. To be chosen, the successful candidates have needed to secure two thirds of the votes in the conclave.

Under the new rules, published in 1996, there are a number of key changes:

“¢ No cardinal over 80 may participate in the conclave
“¢ The conclave should begin no sooner than 15 days after the death of the Pontiff and no later than 20 days
“¢ If no candidate secures a two third majority in the first 12 days of secret balloting or the first thirty ballots (there are 4 votes a day, separated by prayer) then the cardinals may invoke a rule requiring no more than a 50% +1 majority for election
“¢ The cardinals will continue to vote in the Sistine Chapel, but will now stay in executive accommodation (St Martha’s House) with bathrooms en suite and comfortable beds – a major change from the primitive and unsanitary conditions which have prevailed for several centuries
“¢ No communication devices of any kind will be permitted in the conclave and the process and discussions must remain secret before, during and forever after on pain of excommunication [7]
“¢ Whatever is said during the conclave is not binding on the successful candidate – once elected, they are their own man
“¢ The conclave may elect any catholic to the office of Pope, though in reality it will elect one of its own number
“¢ Black smoke signaling a failure to elect and white smoke signaling election will continue to be used – straw and chemicals ensure that the right “smoke signals” are sent.

The combination of these factors will likely lead, according to several commentators, to a longer election process than we have become used to in this century. In fact, there are few incentives for a quick election when waiting may open the field for a change in voting procedures which could favour patient candidates.

The Candidates for Succession – The “Papabili”

It is said that “he who enters the conclave as Pope, leaves it as a cardinal” – making clear that active candidacies are frowned upon in the church. Yet several have been named as likely candidates and some are pursuing their networks and connections relentlessly.

Using the world press to identify recognised candidates, it is possible to develop a list of those who look likely to succeed. At this stage it is a long list of twelve persons, though some can be easily ruled out. This list includes:

“¢ Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Belgium. A brilliant and widely-respected theologian, Cardinal Danneels is seen as a unifying figure acceptable to both conservatives and progressives within the College of Cardinals.
“¢ Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Brazil. Theologically conservative, but engaged in confronting poverty and other social problems, the Franciscan archbishop of San Paulo is considered one of the strongest Latin American candidates.
“¢ Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega Y Alamino, Cuba. The Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Ortega has kept the church alive in defiance of Cuba’s communist regime. Many see parallels with John Paul II, whom he has closely supported.
“¢ Cardinal Francis Arinze, Nigeria. The head of the Vatican Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Cardinal Arinze is the strongest African candidate. Personable and theologically conservative, Arinze has shown great loyalty to the current pope. But many cardinals are sceptical of a pontiff from Africa, where Catholicism has relatively shallow roots.
“¢ Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, Honduras. The personable archbishop of Tegucigalpa has long been seen as a rising star. His youth and a recent outburst against US press coverage of the Catholic sex scandals probably weakened his candidacy.
“¢ Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Colombia. Favourite of archconservatives, Cardinal Castrillon is the head of the Vatican office of the clergy. A defender of traditional doctrine, he’s taken a bold stance against his country’s powerful drug lords.
“¢ Cardinal Walter Kasper, Germany. Favourite of progressives, Cardinal Kasper is a intellectual heavyweight who’s advocated decentralization of the church, reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, and a more lenient stance towards divorced Catholics. Kasper, currently head of ecumenical affairs for the Vatican, may not fit the profile of a “transitional” pope.
“¢ Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Italy. A theological moderate with unparalleled skills as an administrator, Cardinal Re is regarded in some quarters as a perfect transitional figure. But his experience has been entirely within the Vatican, which may hurt his candidacy. His chances would improve if he serves as an archbishop before the next conclave.

It is interesting to note that John Paul was 58 when he became Pope, in part seen as a reaction to the election and sudden death of his much older predecessor[8]. Many of the candidates listed here are significantly older. Few Popes live beyond 80 years of age.

The African Cardinal Arinze is favoured by some liberals on the grounds of being black, representative of the developing world and a role model for the modern church. However, he is in fact a right wing cardinal and would pursue similar theological and operational positions to John Paul II. He is also unlikely to secure enough votes in early rounds, with less than 45% of cardinals in the conclave being from the developing world.

Despite the dominance of the Latin American church in terms of congregation, there are no substantial candidates from the region, Cardinal Neves ruling himself out on the grounds of health. More importantly, candidates from the US, Canada and Britain are regarded as simply unelectable. The only way in which a Latin American candidate would emerge is if the cardinals from the region voted en bloc, which is unlikely.

The process within the conclave is simple. After a day of prayer and reflection, nominations begin. An initial ballot is taken and then the substantial politics of election begin with reflection, prayer and discussion in small groups occurring as needed. Four ballots a day, with smoke signals after each one, continue until the Pope is elected. Each cardinal then individually takes a vow of allegiance to the new Pope and the Pope’s vestments are tailored for his appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s. The process can take anything from two days to nine months, with the election more probably over in 8-9 days at most.

The Key Issues Facing a New Pope

When the cardinals develop a profile of the new Pope, they will identify at least five critical issues.

The first is style. One word sums up the approach of John Paul II and several of his predecessors in this century: authoritarian. Like Margaret Thatcher, it is “my way or the highway”. The Pope has used both his centralized Power and the modern doctrine of Papal infallibility to stamp his authority on the practices of the Church as well as on its theology. There are growing desires amongst some of the Cardinals for a more consultative and participative process.

The second issue, linked to the first, is decentralization. Given the authoritarian style of most of the Popes of this century (the exception is John XXIII), bishops are seeking more control over their diocese and more say in the affairs of the Church. A spirit of democracy is breaking out amongst these senior clergy. They want to be able to interpret cannon law, established teaching and the rules of the Church through their own offices as Bishops, with the guidance of their Archbishop, and not have to wait for Rome. This issue also touches on how bishops are chosen – the liberals seek election from the clergy and lay communities within the diocese as opposed to appointment by Rome. The fear in Rome amongst the curia is that this thrust for decentralization could fragment the church and fracture its theology.

The third issue is the place of women in the Church. It is clear in the teachings of the Church, which John Paul II has simply reinforced, that women will not be Priests (though they have been in the past [9]), that women should not be permitted to sanction abortion of their own fetus or permit artificial insemination, nor marry a Priest. While these positions are consistent over a considerable time, women are seeking a place in the Church which is more than that of handmaiden.

The fourth issue is ecumenicism. What kind of reconciliations are possible with other religions and faith? It is a major thrust of the papacy of John Paul II to seek reconciliation and accommodation with other faiths, especially the Christian community and the orthodox church. The cardinals will need to determine, through their choice of Vicar of Rome, just how far they wish this ecumenical movement to go and its implications for the future church.

The final issue is the operational church and money. There have been ongoing problems in the way in which the Vatican operates, both as a Church and as a Papal State. While we hear little at this time about the financial health of the Church and its burgeoning bureaucracy, it is a growing issue for some of the more administrative minded curia. They will look for someone to sort out the way in which the curia operates and is managed. Some also wish to see a reform of the Church’s financial institutions.

There will also be many “local” issues, but these five will dominate the considerations. Most of cardinals will be conservative with respect to all of these issues – John Paul II has appointed over 90% of them and has done so with great care to ensure that his legacy will live well beyond his years. He has shaped this agenda.


When the pundits offered predictions concerning the style and character of the Pope and who it would be prior to and during the second 1978 conclave, almost no one predicted that Karol Wojtyla would be elected [10] or that he would have reigned for more than 25 years or that his strategy would be what it has been. This should be a caution to us in our endeavour to look ahead.

We should also remember just how quickly Pope John XXIII changed the agenda of the church by summoning the Second Vatican Council and issuing two critical encyclicals in rapid succession. Much to the surprise of those who elected him, John XXIII changed the agenda of the Church and began to take it down a new road. This road was one of decentralization, major change in the practices of the Church (e.g. abandoning the Latin mass) and a new view of the role of the lay person and women in the Church. He did this, despite only living five years after his election to the Holy Sea. To some extent, the election of John Paul II was intended by the cardinals to reign in the change process John XXIII had begun and to regain control over the growing liberalism of the Church: the cardinals knew what they were doing.

In the situation they now face, the balances of power between the “old church” (white, Western and wealthy) and the “new church” (burgeoning, poor and developing its muscle) will determine the outcome of the conclave and the direction of the Church. It is not clear who will be elected, but it seems clear that the signal will be one of “more of the same”.

[1] The Vatican have not confirmed or denied this diagnosis.
[2] On July 15th 1992, John Paul had part of his colon surgically removed.
[3] Silvester III in 1045 and St Celestine V in 1295
[4] Which is not the view taken by some of his predecessors. Both Pious XII (d. 1958 aged 82) and Paul VI (d. 1978, aged 80) both lived out their final months in relative seclusion, shielding the world from their illness. However, Paul Johnson reports that he has written a resignation letter in case he falls into a coma which doctors then certify he will not recover from – see Paul Johnson The Papacy Phoenix Illustrated, 1997.
[5] There are claims that John Paul I was murdered, but the general opinion is against such an assumption.
[6] He has expanded the number of Cardinals who can participate in the conclave from 155 to 122, though with recent deaths and advancing years, only 120 would be in the conclave it were held today. In total, there are 135 living cardinals.
[7] We will find out, however, since the conclave cardinals may tell the non conclave cardinals (those over 80) what happened and these in turn are free to talk to the press.
[8] The youngest Pope ever elected was Benedict IX, who was 15 at the time of his appointment (1032 – 1048).
[9] There is also convincing evidence that a woman was once elected Pope – Pope Joan in the 9th century.
[10] The exception was Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago ad Jesuit sociologist ad author/journalist.