Waiting for the White Smoke

Election day, or sort of.  For unless the Holy Spirit imparts a remarkable concentration, we are not likely to see white smoke at the end of this day and a new pope appearing on the balcony. 

This is the first day on which the College of Cardinals will be meeting with the purpose of deliberating, but then reaching a judgment, on the successor to Benedict XVI.  While the world waits, our own Robert Royal is doing commentaries for EWTN, while the major American networks have the benefit of luminous writers in George Weigel and Fr. John Wauck.  

Weigel and Wauck offer the best hope of diverting the networks from the vulgarity that would otherwise attend these broadcasts, for most of the leading figures on the networks have little comprehension of what the Church is about. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago noted the tendency years ago to report on the Second Vatican Council as though it was acting out a revolution instead of restating in a different way a teaching firmly in place. The sense was conveyed, he thought, that the bishops were in a position to “control rather than preserve the apostolic faith.”

Russell Hittinger long ago remarked in this vein that Americans have so thoroughly absorbed a sense of “positivism” in the laws that even Catholics come to see the Church through that lens. They think that people elevated to positions of authority now have the power to reshape the positive law of the Church – that the pope could simply install, in a stroke, the ordination of women. What seems hard for some people to grasp is that the pope himself does not think he has that power, for the doctrines are anchored in truths he did not invent and which he has no power to dissolve. 

There has been talk about the possibilities of an American pope. Robert Royal reports the sense abroad that America in its secularizing culture already has an outsized influence in shaping the culture of the rest of the world. And yet that may make all the more appealing the selection of an American who has stood, with learning and wit, against the currents of relativism.

If we could have our way, Robert Royal and I both have in mind a certain candidate. I saw him first at a workshop of the bishops, in Dallas, in the early 1990s. I was giving a talk, and this young bishop from Yakima rose to ask me a penetrating question about the strands I had drawn from Aristotle and Kant. I had to find out who he was.

          Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, U.S.A.

The surprise – and the enchantment – was amplified when I found that this man, not much older than I, with a limp lingering from polio contracted as a child, had grown up in that “Scandiwegian” neighborhood in which my wife and I had gone to high school in Chicago. This was Francis George.

He made his way into the Church through the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  His course would take him to Rome, to Latin America, to exotic Canada, earning along the way doctorates in philosophy and theology. He would become archbishop of Chicago in 1997. The reporters, seeking some assurance, asked him whether he would be an archbishop in the style of his predecessor, the liberal Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. “Well you see,” he said, “the Church has this aversion to cloning.”

He invited my wife and me into dinner when I finally came into the Church a few years ago, and we could sense the nerve and wit he had to summon every day in a Chicago so wildly different from the place in which we had grown up. He had a Mayor Daley now applauding the parade for Gay Rights and a President Obama poised to assault the teachings of the Church on abortion. He knew something about politics in Chicago – he could understand what moved the younger Mayor Daley.  And yet his skill has been to insist on the moral teaching of the Church, to deal respectfully, but to hold firmly against the currents whirling around him.

In his book The Difference God Makes, he had a line I especially treasured, because it touched a situation I’ve faced. He recalls a woman sitting next to him on a plane, and asking, as an earnest Evangelical, whether he had been “saved.” He later wrote: “She could not grasp the width, the expansion, of the act of faith in the Catholic Church, which is so much more inclusive than simply a faith that Jesus is our personal savior.”

Our faith includes also our understanding of the Church herself as part of divine revelation. He told the woman on the plane that he had indeed been saved, “but within a sacramental system that demands my free participation.”

He is now 76, with health always a concern, and the odds are against his selection. But if the Cardinals are willing to settle on the most solid of men, even without promise of a long, long reign, he should not be discounted. Still, his very presence, in the heart of these deliberations is itself a ground of hope that something good will come. 

And one real consolation is this:  With all of the commentaries we are about to hear, we will mercifully hear no projections this week on the way Ohio is likely to go.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.