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Day Four: The Great Game Begins

So we finally have a starting time. Given the choice among Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week, the assembled cardinals chose to be moderate and pick the date in the middle. I am not boasting when I say that I anticipated this middle-of-the-road move – which my press colleagues here in Rome discounted. It was simply a logical extrapolation: There seems to be an air of caution and moderation in all the events to date. So in many ways, this latest result is the least surprise.

There’s still a lot of time between now (Friday evening, as I write) and then. Three whole days of the further “getting to know you.” That’s plenty of time to take some final measurements of the next successor to Peter, who is likely to be one of the several solid figures already being talked about. There seem to be no surprise candidates emerging – though the Italian press, including some seasoned Vaticanologists, seem to be giving NYC’s Cardinal Dolan a much stronger chance than seems realistic.

Dolan has multiple weaknesses as a papal candidate. He really speaks no languages other than English, and by default, Italian is the lingua franca in the Vatican. That lack alone would hamper him in carrying out the administrative reform and close supervision of the Curia everyone agrees the next pope must undertake. 

He’s of course a charming and bighearted man, but I myself am not quite sure that the worldwide gathering of cardinals is ready for that much charm and that large a heart. Also, his shtick, to employ a technical theological term, is better suited to Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs than it is to the Roman Urbs, to say nothing of audiences in partibus infidelium to use a popular expression.

If you wanted to hazard a guess at this point, you’d want to triangulate among the various desiderata: reformer, pastor, clear teacher of the faith. In the next papacy, we probably are not going to see a string of social encyclicals or further developments of doctrine. What we seem to need in the near to medium future are workmanlike efforts to make the rich teaching of the past two papacies a living reality everywhere in the global Church.

    Cardinal Marc Ouellet

So let me hazard a guess – maybe a passing fantasy this evening based on all of the above. As the days unfold, I may revisit this prediction. But add it all up and you probably can’t do better than Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Come to think of it, you could do better with a name easier to pronounce (ooh-let, seems to be the compromise version for now between Canadians and the French), but it will grow on you, don’t worry.

Ouellet is a strong reformer. When he was archbishop of Quebec City, in spite of the near total secularization of the formerly rock-ribbed Catholic province, he didn’t hesitate to put in place courageous, orthodox bishops. So he’s proved he can be a strong reformer even against strong headwinds.

As a Canadian, obviously, he understands North America better than most Europeans. But he spent years teaching in Colombia and has plenty of experience of Latin America as well. And he’s seen the Curia from the inside. He runs the Congregation for Bishops – if you’ve had a good episcopal appointment lately in your diocese, you can probably thank him. And he presides over the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. So he’s been close to the heart of Curial power, but – and this is very important – not too close.   

He also follows in the theological/philosophical line of Joseph Ratzinger (along with Scola, Schonborn, and an outsider – CDF Archbishop, but not a cardinal, Gerhard Mueller).

Reaching into the Curia, even the outskirts of the Curia, for a pope invites many hazards. A deep thinker among our friends, with large experience in the Church and politics, said of this situation just today that trying to select a pope from the Curia is like putting your hand into a bag with six snakes and one eel – and hoping you’ll pull out the eel.

The same person advises that it’s not the Free Masons inside the Vatican or the “gay lobby” – both of whom exist – who are the real problem. The future scandal might come from financial corruption and the blandishments of power.   

I asked him whether, among these dangerous currents, there was a Catholic lobby inside the Vatican. We’ll soon see.[Note: This report may also be read in Italian [1] and French [2].]


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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.