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Anatomy of an Election
by Paul Wilkes
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Pope Benedict XVI blesses a child as he leaves a prayer service in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
(CNS photo from Catholic Press Photo)
What went on inside the papal conclave that stunned the world not only by acting quickly, but also by choosing a conservative loyalist to virtually step into the footprints of the conservative John Paul II?
Someday we may know the full story, gleaned from words spoken openly or leaked inadvertently by one or some of the 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church who were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel and vowed to secrecy—under the pain of excommunication—not to reveal any of the proceedings.
But after talking to Vatican insiders and others with years of access to the Curia, and after piecing together shreds of evidence from interviews with Church leaders and other experienced Vatican watchers, here is this reporter’s reconstruction of what may have occurred.
Although there had been enormous speculation about the possibility of electing a pope from the Third World, it was obvious early on to Vatican experts that this was an extremely outside possibility. The churches of Africa and Asia, though growing, are still relatively young and fielded no strong candidates. Cardinal Arinze’s name surfaced only to sink quickly; apparently he couldn't gain traction. The church of South and Central America had cardinals like Hummes of Brazil and Rodriguez of Honduras, but at 70 and 62 respectively, both were too young to promise the shorter papacy that cardinals seemed to want following the lengthy reign of John Paul II.
No Americans were ever serious choices; they have neither great support nor standing among their peers—besides which the cardinals would never allow a spiritual seat of power to be occupied by one whose country already powerfully dominates world politics and economics.
As for the Italians, although the name of Tettamanzi of Milan had been circulating for months, if not years, as a sort of John XXIII-type of portly, fatherly figure, he was in fact neither imbedded in the hearts of Italians generally (and this tide of public sentiment is not only an element in papal elections, but part of the home-court advantage of Italians), nor was he considered a major player among the cardinals. That he did not speak English was considered a distinct disadvantage.
As for the progressive cardinals, there were but few of them, and support did not appear to coalesce around any specific candidate. Martini was retired and reputed to have Parkinson’s Disease, Danneels of Belgium, Murphy-O’Connor of Great Britain and Kasper of Germany, while darlings of those who wanted to set out on the bold path marked by Kasper’s eleventh hour plea, were anomalies among John Paul II's choices, and outnumbered by the vast majority of conservative-leaning cardinals he had appointed. More moderate candidates like Policarpo of Portugal and Lustiger of France would only surface as viable if progressive and conservative voting blocs were deadlocked.
Now, looking back, the conclave may have played out in a very predictable fashion. As Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said after an otherwise news-less press conference this morning at the North American College, “For us in the conclave, it was a moment of grace and a time of angst” that they would choose the right man.
So, a certain nervousness was present. The cardinals’ every move had been broadcast around the world for the past two weeks. They were both pleased with the coverage, and they felt vulnerable and overexposed. They knew as soon as the white smoke floated from the Sistine Chapel chimney, they would be descended upon once more to say where the new pontificate would be heading. They wanted to come out with heads high, having proven themselves capable of making such a momentous decision in a reasonably short period of time.
So why not choose a pope who would assure the “continuity” that had become the iconic word in the days before the conclave—and one they all knew well? No one filled that description better than the powerful and popular pope's right-hand man, Joseph Ratzinger.
The histories of papal conclaves tell us that the first vote, which occurred Monday afternoon, is often a straw vote in which dominant candidates receive substantial, but not conclusive, support. Other “favorite son” candidates—for instance, a younger man voting for the venerable cardinal who mentored him, just so his benefactor could take to the grave his single step toward the Chair of St. Peter—would receive a wide but shallow sprinkling of votes. Traditionally, these votes change on the second ballot.
The estimate in the Italian press of Ratzinger’s first-round votes fluctuated between 40 and 50. Who else might have received a substantial number of votes to challenge Ratzinger, creating a deadlock whereupon a compromise candidate would have to be found? That is the mystery we may someday discover. Today, 24 hours after the vote, I cannot find out if there ever was a serious challenger. It may be that the bloc favoring conservatism and continuity were united around him, while those opposed were divided among a number of other candidates.
As the two votes continued on Tuesday morning, Ratzinger’s numbers probably increased, but were not sufficient to elect him. Who was in his camp from the beginning? Certainly, many within the Curia who knew that Ratzinger could be trusted to keep the powerful bureaucracy intact. In matters like this, he was not an innovator. Among the ideologically like-minded, Ratzinger had the advantage of being the conservative star among ordinary conservatives—he had clamped down on alleged abuses in the Church language and liturgy, whipsawed theologians, had written the controversial Dominus Iesus which unequivocally stated the primacy of Catholicism and the deficiency of other Christian faiths and non-Christian traditions. He was akin to an American evangelical Christian. In Ratzinger’s case: salvation through not only Jesus Christ, but in the Catholic Church alone.
His age was perfect, 78, promising both continuity and brevity, a way for the cardinals to catch their breath after John Paul II’s long reign. And his credentials were impeccable. He had used the buzzword fundamentalism triumphantly and unequivocally at the Mass of the Holy Sprit that launched the conclave Monday morning. Although there was a sprinkling of cardinals considered even more traditionalistic than Ratzinger, they were too bizarre and not known well enough to be elected. There were actually not too many to the right of Ratzinger; he dominated and embraced a wide swath of the cardinals.
With the votes on Tuesday morning, his numbers may have grown while no one else’s did. Cardinals remembered little favors he had done for them. (In the press conference today, Cardinal Egan of New York noted that Ratzinger had left a retreat to return to Rome to send him off.) The Third World cardinals, who are equal in voting power but certainly not in influence, knew Ratzinger as their rabbi, their fixer. He could pave the way among curial offices, assist in getting needed aid, push through stalled paperwork. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, all roads led to him. Ratzinger could make things happen; the cardinals felt comfortable because while they didn’t know each other well, they all knew him, somewhat shy, self-effacing, prayerful, helpful, and courteous—as well as decisive and only second in power to John Paul II.
By Tuesday afternoon, perhaps the holdouts were capitulating. It was obvious who was going to win; why keep the world waiting? It would show a bold and clear-headed decisiveness on their part. Cardinals like to leave a conclave having voted for the eventual winner, the man before whom they would soon kneel and pledge their troth, whose hand they would kiss in the ultimate act of submission to God’s will. After all, there was no real competition. The final vote, according to speculation by German and Belgian newspapers and Italian TV, was not merely a vote or two above the 78 needed to elect. Rather, it was a resounding statement that Joseph Ratzinger was exactly the man for this season, the man who should be pope.
And about an hour after that vote, he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s. He was now Benedict XVI.
Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press. 

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