The conclave’s fixed ways
And now the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church retreat into the Sistine Chapel, hordes of journalists flitting breathlessly around St. Peter’s Square, one question above many others hanging in the air. Will the next pope chart a course of truly significant change for the church, which could certainly use some changing?
The answer is in the very nature and composition of the conclave. No.
Much of what has eroded the church’s authority and must be addressed is its addiction to secrecy, its rejection of transparency. This dictated its botched, disastrous response to the child sexual abuse crisis. It’s the root of the problem with the Vatican bank. It’s also why public attention to the final chapter of Pope Benedict XVI’s reign was dominated by talk of leaks and liaisons and wiretaps and dossiers. When an organization shrouds itself in mystery, it’s invariably treated as a cradle of intrigue.
And yet here its self-appointed leaders are, walling themselves off in order to make the most important decision about the church’s governance in complete isolation and privacy. They will keep only their own counsel. They will speak to the outside world in smoke signals.
There’s no scriptural mandate for this. It doesn’t date back to the origins of the church. It evolved in part from the longest conclave ever, in the 13th century, when the church’s leaders were locked away by people tensely awaiting a decision and trying to hurry it along.
But the leaders now cloister themselves of their own accord, and force anyone who may come in contact with them during the conclave — nurses, say, or security officers — to swear not to reveal anything they’ve witnessed, under threat of excommunication. You’d be hard pressed to construct a better metaphor for the cardinals’ limited interest in human (as opposed to divine) accountability, or for their distance from the people in the pews, relegated time and again to roles as onlookers and dutiful subjects.
The 115 electors, who are also the candidates, are much more alike than different. They’re all men, of course, and they were all elevated to their positions by one of the last two popes, who often rewarded leaders with theological orientations mirroring their own. This is a recipe for continuity, not upheaval.
Their average age is 72, and they’re a geographic mismatch with the global distribution of Catholics. Fewer than one in 20 Catholics reside in Italy, while nearly 1 in 4 electors are Italian. Europe accounts for about 24 percent of the world’s Catholic population but more than 50 percent of the cardinals with a vote in this conclave.
All of which is to say that the church is no democracy. To a large extent, it shouldn’t be. Its lodestar isn’t what’s of greatest liking to its citizens, so to speak, but what’s of greatest fidelity to God.
And for the cardinals at its helm, the whole notion of new directions contradicts what they see as their stewardship of eternal, unalterable truths. They look at change with deep suspicion. They deem it undesirable for the most part.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, asserted almost as much in a recent homily in Rome, saying that “the very nature of the papacy is to hand on faithfully what God told us of Jesus, what Jesus told his apostles, and what his apostles hand on to us — tradition, with a capital T.”
That’s an understandable perspective. Clinging to its ways, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has outlasted other ruling classes. Despite ample turmoil, despite all the scandals, much of the world turns its gaze toward Rome this week.
But what Dolan and his peers disregard is how many facets of the tradition they stubbornly protect reflect their and their predecessors’ subjective, utterly human interpretation of how God speaks and what God wants. There are ways the church could bend without simply caving to public opinion or losing its soul. And the right degree of adaptability could substantially bolster the institutional church’s moral authority rather than compromise it.
This was implicit in an interview that one of the cardinals from the last conclave, Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, gave right before his death last year. He reportedly complained that the church was two centuries behind the times. “Our rites,” he added, “are pompous.”
They are at the least predictable. And while it may be impossible to guess whether the next pope will come from Europe or Latin America or even Africa, it’s almost certain that he will abide and maintain the church’s opaqueness, preserve the current requirements of the priesthood, stay the course.
And many hopeful, hurting Catholics will be left where they were under Benedict: with a faith whose essence warms them, but whose formal administration leaves them cold.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.