Early 2013 was a season of surprises in Rome. The biggest was Pope Benedict XIV’s February 11 resignation—the first by a pope in 600 years, and perhaps the first voluntary one ever. But a second surprise, the subsequent selection of a Latin American pope who has proven to be extraordinarily popular, probably holds greater long-term significance.
Evidence of Pope Benedict’s increasing physical frailty had been growing, but the papal tradition of serving until death—his predecessor Pope John Paul II soldiered on through years of Parkinson’s Disease—remained unquestioned. The world’s surprise registered in the headlines announcing Benedict’s decision: “A Sudden Papal Resignation,” in the Boston Globe on February12; “A Bolt from the Blue: Pope’s Resignation Stuns the Church” in the London Guardian, the same day; and from the customarily sober New York Times, “A Statement Rocks Rome, Then Sends Shockwaves Around the World.”
The 85-year-old Benedict went out characteristically, issuing his announcement to a group of cardinals who had gathered for a routine meeting to discuss the canonization of several new saints. Speaking in Latin, he calmly announced his unprecedented plan to retire.
“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” Benedict said.
Once the shockwave began to dissipate, many observers praised Benedict’s willingness to relinquish power. “Pope Benedict has set an example for popes and others in power who stay too long at the fair: judges, senators, athletes,” Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer wrote on February 14. “Those who keep a firm grip on the power and the glory instead of yielding to the inevitability of time.”
“As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope observed firsthand the pain and suffering borne by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and how impaired he became,” the Philadelphia Daily News editorialized on February 12. “On more than one occasion, Benedict expressed the opinion that when a pope no longer possesses the strength of mind and body, it was his right and even his duty to resign. On Monday, he set an important historic precedent: Although he is the first pope to resign in modern times, he likely won’t be the last.”
If that seems like faint praise, most assessments of Benedict’s eight-year reign were lukewarm, at best. His election in 2005 was widely seen as evidence that the world’s cardinals wanted more of the theological conservatism that had marked John Paul’s era, in which Benedict had played an important supporting role.
“Ratzinger was theologically conservative, a die-hard traditionalist with a reputation as a heavy-handed enforcer of church discipline that earned him the less-than-flattering nickname, ‘The Rottweiler,’” Religion News Service columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote on March 1. “And yet, as pontiff, Benedict’s demeanor was more subdued than many had expected. Some Vatican insiders called him a ‘reluctant pope’—an introvert more at ease with his books and cats than other people.”
On Benedict’s watch, the Catholic clerical sexual abuse scandal spread from North America to Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, and while Benedict spoke forcefully to denounce it, and met with victims, he failed to hold local bishops responsible for cover-ups. As Falsani and others noted, he also said things that angered Jews and Muslims, cracked down hard on American nuns, and failed to persuade a schismatic group, the Society of Pope Pius X, to moderate its teachings and return to the Catholic fold.
Further, “Benedict was seen as a weak manager,” Rachel Donadio and Nicholas Kulish wrote in the New York Times. “His papacy was troubled by debilitating scandals, most recently when his butler was convicted by a Vatican court in October 2012 of aggravated theft after he admitted stealing confidential documents, many of which wound up in a tell-all book that showed behind-the-scenes Vatican intrigue.”
Even harsher critiques came from Catholic conservatives, who were disappointed by Benedict’s papacy. Writing in the immediate wake of Benedict’s resignation in the online magazine Slate, Michael Brendan Dougherty issued this verdict: “Although Pope Benedict XVI’s highly unusual resignation is said to be for reasons of health, it fits the character of his papacy: All his initiatives remain incomplete. He was consciously elected to rescue the church from itself, but he failed to finish what he started.”
Benedict made the date for his resignation February 28, thereby setting in motion the complex process of a papal election, which is required by church law to take place within 17 days of the death or resignation of a pope.
Since a papal conclave takes place in utter secrecy, with a sequestered electorate that is mostly scattered around the world in its daily life, it’s difficult for journalists to do much actual reporting. Nevertheless, the election of Benedict’s successor turned into a huge story, with hundreds of journalists poking around for interesting angles. Beginning on February 12, most journalistic attention turned to assessing lists of papabile, candidates for the papacy—all of whom deny that they are candidates for the papacy.
All of this involves speculation, often at the level of odds-making, reporting of rumors, or taking the temperature of the Vatican bureaucracy, which may or may not have real insight into the mood of the electors.
The least fortunate of the prognosticators was probably Tom Hennigan of the Irish Times in Dublin. On February 13, he published a story under the headline, “Moment may have passed for Latin America to provide Pope.” The “problem is the lack of any compelling candidate,” Hennigan wrote. Remarkably, he went on to assess the ultimately successful candidate, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, at some length, discounting him because of his age (76) and because of disputes about his record during the Argentine junta of the 1970s.
Most of the early coverage of the papabile provided long lists, usually headed by a 64-year-old Vatican administrator from Ghana, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson. One Australian newspaper, the Hobart Mercury, listed Turkson under the label “The Favorite,” and quoted his odd as 3.5 to 1. Others were labeled, “The Plain Speaker,” “The Quiet Achiever,” “The Savior,” and “The Rising Star.” Bergoglio, styled as, “The Salt of the Earth,” appeared well down the list at 29.5 to 1.
While the Mercury’s tip sheet, like that of many similar products, didn’t rate Bergoglio chances very highly, it did tune into aspects of his character that have since made him a very popular and unconventional pope. “Born in Buenos Aires, he has become known for his modest lifestyle and commitment to social justice. He lives in a small apartment, rather than in the palatial bishop’s residence. He gave up his chauffeured limousine in favor of public transportation, and he reportedly cooks his own meals.”
As the election approached, conservative journalist Joseph Bottum argued in the Weekly Standard on March 4 that the best qualified candidate was Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, whom Bottum judged had probably stepped on too many curial toes to be electable in a conclave where 39 of 117 cardinals served in the Vatican bureaucracy. Along with Turkson, Cardinal Marc Ouellette, a curial Canadian, and Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan seemed much more electable.
Unlike the Irish Times, Bottum thought a Latin American might have a chance, and he singled out Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras and the Brazilian Odilo Scherr of Sao Paulo. “The archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is well respected enough, anyway, that he emerged as a leading figure in the 2005 enclave that chose Benedict,” Bottum wrote. “Although he firmly rejected any thought of the papacy for himself this time around, he could play the kingmaker role and persuade his fellow cardinals to elect one of his fellow South Americans.”
Bergoglio also appeared well down the list of top contenders published by the Associated Press on March 10—but again, the AP’s thumbnail sketch of Bergoglio conveyed the information that illuminated what eventually made him attractive to other cardinals.
Bergoglio had, AP reported, “spent nearly his entire career at home in Argentina, overseeing churches and shoe-leather priests…He has long specialized in the kind of pastoral work that some say is an essential skill for the next pope. In a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which has the largest share of the world’s Catholics, Bergoglio has shown a keen political sensibility as well as the kind of self-effacing humility that fellow cardinals value highly. Bergoglio is known for modernizing an Argentine church that had been among the most conservative in Latin America.”
Writing from Argentina on March 4, the AP’s Michael Warren argued that Bergoglio “would likely encourage the church’s 400,000 priests to hit the streets to capture more souls.” Warren quoted Bergoglio’s biographer Sergio Rubin as saying that the archbishop’s style is “the anti-thesis of Vatican splendor.” When Catholic bishops meet, Rubin said, “he always wants to sit in the back row.”
The New York Times saved much of its handicapping for after the election. “The selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who did not appear on preconclave lists of likely popes, seemed to confirm that old line about papal succession: go in a pope, come out a cardinal,” David Leonhardt wrote on March 13.
Leonhardt quoted Vaticanologist George Weigel on what is called the Pignedoli Principle—the pattern of disappointed front-runners that is named after a crestfallen Italian contender in the 1978 papal election. “The chances of being elected pope decrease in proportion to the number of times he is described as papabile in the press,” Weigel said.
Leonhardt then knocked down the Pignedoli Principle, noting that favorites had won papal election is three of the last seven conclaves. “Sometimes, the public discussion of the contenders reflects the cardinals’ actual preferences—or may shape those preferences. And sometimes the public discussion is either off-base or may in fact push the cardinals away from a favorite.”
So, despite the shallowness of odds-making as a way of covering papal elections, this year’s coverage did, although perhaps inadvertently, convey qualities and characteristics that accurately foretold what Cardinal Bergoglio would be like as pope.
This suggests that the cardinals knew what they were looking for—and that many of them had been looking for it in 2005, too. They wanted, in the words of the Hobart Mercury, the salt of the earth, a leader with a strong pastoral orientation, a clear sense of the urgency of institutional reform, and the skills to avoid becoming a prisoner of the Vatican.
The cardinals clearly voted for a pope who would try to restrain and reform the Vatican bureaucracy and reduce the centralization of church authority in Rome that has strongly marked recent decades.
Pope Francis has a collegial vision of church leadership, and represents church leaders who want a less “Vatican-centric” future for the Catholic Church, to use a word he tossed out in an October 1 interview with the Roman newspaper La Repubblica. “The church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God,” Francis said.
The pope told La Repubblica about his reaction to being elected. “When in the conclave they elected me pope, I asked for some time alone before I accepted,” he said in the interview. “I was overwhelmed by great anxiety, then I closed my eyes and all thoughts, including the possibility of refusing, went away.”
Be that as it may, since his March election, it has been manifest that anxiety is not one of the pope’s afflictions. From the moment when he declined to put on the fur-trimmed papal mozzetta for his formal introduction on the balcony of the Apostolic Palace and then took a bus with his fellow cardinals back to his guest house, Francis has spoken and acted with resolve. In the wake of his second-place finish in 2005, he seems to have given a great deal of thought to what he would do and how he would do it, if ever given another chance to be pope.