Day Seven: A Prayer for the Cardinal Electors

Monday, the final day before the conclave begins, was a reflective day. The cardinals met again and discussed various questions, but voted to cut off discussion in the General Congregation after their morning session. That fact may signify that even they feel, at least for now, that it’s time for prayer and recollection rather than analyzing “issues.” Some of the cardinals could be seen in Rome’s restaurants this evening before they enter into holy lockdown. At 7 AM Rome time the morning this report will appear, they will show up at their lodgings for the duration in Casa Santa Marta, where the regular process of a papal conclave will begin.

There has been a lot of last minute news, not necessarily accurate, about expected coalitions. Latin American experts say the Brazilian Odilo Scherer, often characterized as a kind of stalking-horse candidate of the curia, has little support among Latin American cardinals themselves. Surprisingly, many of them seem to look to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a man with a long history in South America – and who speaks Spanish and Portuguese among other languages.

The surprise lies in two facts. First, Latin America has long had a certain resentment toward North America, justified in several respects, because of the way the United States in particular has tried to control politics south of the Rio Grande. Second, Cardinal O’Malley’s press secretary, Terry Donilon, is the brother of President Obama’s National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon. In the not so distant past, Latin Americans, and not only they, would have thought that to vote for an America pope meant the Vatican and the CIA would jointly run the world.

Happily, that’s no longer the case – or at least not automatically the case. And getting past that exaggerated fear is a good thing for both the Church and the world.

Just to review the simple numbers one more time. There will be 115 cardinal electors who enter the Sistine Chapel today. Since you need a two-thirds majority to be named pope, someone will have to get to 77 votes in the next few days – and I, for one, believe it will only be a few days.

Among the electors, 60 are Europeans, 14 from North America, and 19 from Latin America. The rest (only 22) from the other continents. But don’t be deceived by this breakdown as if it represented coherent interests like an American political party. For example, there are cleavages even among the Italians, the largest national group (28), with some leaning towards Scola and, among the more curialist types, to Scherer. And something similar might be said of the other large groupings.

I’ve been trying to think through whether we can say anything with certainty about the next few days, and I believe the answer is simply no. I’m reminded of a telling story. In centuries past, one of the ways professors used to teach logic was a common syllogism:

a)     All swans are white
b)     X is a swan
c)     Therefore X is white.

This was a very good example – until European explorers reached Australia and discovered black swans there. Reasoning is only as good as the input on which it is based. If you had to judge by what’s happened over the past century, this should be a relatively quick transition. For all our sense that the Church is “in crisis,” is it more so than when Pius XII was elected just before World War II, or was under Paul VI in the 1970s when the disorder that came out of Vatican II was raging? Even given the pedophilia crisis, we shouldn’t exaggerate the problems of the present moment.

That said, however, it is still possible that the moral equivalent of a black swan will emerge in coming day that will alter our historical notions of how a pope is elected.

One of the more encouraging things I heard today came from a woman who lives near the Casa Santa Marta (again, where the cardinals will be housed in the coming days). The electronic jamming devices security teams have been installing have disrupted her Internet.

One of my worries, as you know if you’ve been following these reports, is that unscrupulous persons or even Vatileaks sympathizers (who still exist inside the Vatican) may try to mess with this process. There have been astonishing leaks from the General Congregation. And a prudent person would want to be prepared if someone leaks from the Conclave itself, a far more important event.

We know that the Chinese easily hack into the Pentagon on a regular basis. Let’s pray that the teams deployed to protect the secrecy of the Conclave are up to the task.

And let us pray for our Catholic cardinal electors who today will choose the man who will be the successor to Peter and the Vicar of Christ for us in the coming years, our deeply confused time.

[Note: This report may also be read in Italian and French.]


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