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Posted April 14, 2005 at 11:30 a.m. CDT

Handicapping the conclave
Push for Ratzinger is real

By John L. Allen Jr.

Italian newspapers, like nature, abhor a vacuum, and hence in reaction to the press blackout imposed this week by the College of Cardinals, all manner of speculation and rumor has been appearing in the local press. One day Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II, is touted as a leading contender to be the next pope; the next day, the old “Great White Hope” of the church’s liberal wing, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, is the hot tip.

Much of this, despite the oblique hints dropped by some journalists of “deep throat” sources, is built on little more than guesswork. Journalists who cover the Vatican on a regular basis may occasionally succeed in connecting with cardinals they know especially well, but even in those cases, their comments may be motivated by the desire to float trial balloons or block certain candidates. In addition, it’s often unclear to what extent they speak for anyone but themselves, so journalists may be tempted to spot “trends” on the basis of two or three chance encounters.

Given all that, what can be said with some degree of certainty about the behind-the-scenes politics heading into the conclave that opens on Monday?

First, the push for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s doctrinal czar for 24 years and the dean of the College of Cardinals, is for real. There is a strong basis of support for Ratzinger in the college, and his performance in the period following the death of the pope, especially his eloquent homily at the funeral Mass, seems to have further cemented that support. One Vatican official who has worked with Ratzinger over the years said on April 13, “I am absolutely sure that Ratzinger will be the next pope.”

On the other hand, several cardinals have said privately that they’re uncomfortable with the prospect of a Ratzinger papacy. It’s not just that some don’t believe his strong emphasis on the protection of Christian identity in a secular world ought to be the guiding light of the next papacy, but there’s also a real-world concern about the election of a figure with his “baggage.” Fairly or unfairly, Ratzinger is to some extent a lightning rod for Catholic opinion, and in a church that’s already divided, some cardinals worry about exacerbating those divisions. One said April 12: “I’m not sure how I would explain this back home.”

If Ratzinger’s candidacy stalls before reaching a two-thirds majority, meaning 77 out of the 115 votes in this conclave, the question then becomes, who might step in as an alternative?

Here there simply seems to be no consensus as yet, even among the cardinals themselves. Several names are mentioned. Among the pro-Ratzinger forces, acceptable alternatives might include Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Christoph Schönborn of Austria, Angelo Scola of Venice, or even Ivan Dias of India For cardinals more interested in church reform or a pro-social justice agenda, figures such as Claudio Hummes or Geraldo Majella Agnelo, both of Brazil, seem plausible. Alternatively, if a pastoral, moderate Italian emerges as a compromise candidate, men such as Severino Poletto or Ennio Antonelli might be strong runners.

As of this writing, however, the cardinals appear not yet to have settled on any one of these figures as a consensus choice, and hence the situation seems to be still quite fluid.

One other point that can be made with some assurance: the cardinals do not seem interested in a long, protracted conclave. Some have speculated about just such a scenario, given that Ratzinger could plausibly command a simple majority in the conclave (58 votes out of 115) but not two-thirds, in which case that majority might be tempted to simply stick it out through 30 ballots and then, under rules approved by John Paul II, choose, by a simple majority, to elect the pope by a simple majority. In addition, of course, the cardinals will enjoy much greater physical comfort this time around, with two-room suites in the Domus Santa Marta and the capacity to take walks in the Vatican Gardens. That reality, some people believe, might reduce their sense of urgency.

In fact, however, most cardinals who are talking on background in these days say that such scenarios are unlikely. One cardinal put it this way April 10 – the conclave should be neither too short nor too long. Too short, and it looks like they rushed to judgment; too long, and it looks like they’re divided, and that the pope is being elected by a faction rather than a genuine consensus inspired by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, this cardinal said, two-and-a-half to four days would feel about right.

Of course, what makes all this riveting is that the game is played when the teams take the field, and not before. Most forecasts published in the meantime are simply sound and fury, signifying nothing.


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