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Posted April 15, 2005 at 4:05 p.m. CDT

Papal negative campaigning
and the role of the Holy Spirit

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Among the boilerplate questions about conclaves I’ve been asked a thousand times by broadcast and print media this week, here’s one of the most common: What does it mean that the Holy Spirit guides the election of the pope? Isn’t this a political process?

My equally boilerplate response goes like this: It’s a longstanding principle in Catholic theology that grace builds on nature, it doesn’t cancel it out. The belief that God is involved in some human undertaking does not make it any less human, and applied to conclaves, it means that the role of the Holy Spirit does not make this any less a political exercise.

If you want proof of the point, consider the various forms of “negative campaigning” that have been floating through the Roman air in recent days:

 • Italian media have reported rumors that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice has been treated for depression, suggesting a sort of psychological instability that might disqualify him for the church’s highest office;

 • Other reports suggest that Cardinal Ivan Dias of Mumbai has diabetes, a telltale sign of ill health that might undercut what had been a growing swell of positive talk about him, at least in the local press; in addition, an e-mail campaign allegedly initiated by members of his own flock in India is making the rounds, including complaints of an “unapproachable, stubborn and arrogant style.”

 • A recent book in Argentina alleges that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was unacceptably close to the military junta that dominated that country in the 1970s; another e-mail campaign, this one claiming to originate with fellow Jesuits who knew Bergoglio back when he was the provincial of the order in Argentina, claims that “he never smiled.”

 • In the last 48 hours, reports have surfaced that both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, considered by some to be leading candidates, are in poor health, raising questions about their physical capacity to be pope.

No one really has the time to trace down all these rumors, and in a sense that’s the point. The hope is that the mere fact that negative things are being said, whether or not they turn out to be true, will be enough to derail a particular candidacy.

In my experience, a safe rule of thumb is to assume such whispering campaigns are false until proof to the contrary emerges. Dias, for example, told a friend in Rome yesterday that he was surprised to read in the papers that he has diabetes, because it’s the first he’s heard of it. (This is reminiscent of John Paul II’s standard line when reporters would ask about his health. “I don’t know,” he would quip. “I haven’t read the newspapers yet.”)

Moreover, sometimes these attempts at sabotage aren’t even especially imaginative. A friend of mine in the Vatican diplomatic service, for example, called the other day to ask why no one seemed to be talking about Sodano’s well-documented role in efforts to free former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet when he was detained in Great Britain in 1999, facing potential extradition to Spain. Though there are a variety of ways to interpret Sodano’s interventions, not all of them unflattering, at least a critique along these lines would have the virtue of being rooted in reality.

This sort of murmuring is part of the inevitable backdrop to a campaign season, and one that’s more analogous to British rather than American politics – the race lasts only a couple of weeks, instead of almost three years. In the American cycle, there’s usually time to sort out whether alleged documents about George Bush’s National Guard service, for example, are authentic or not; in the frenzy of an abbreviated papal campaign, however, there’s just no time to do that kind of legwork.

Cardinals insist they are not influenced by any of this, and to some extent that’s no doubt true; many of them know one another, and aren’t dependent upon newspapers for assessments of Ratzinger’s health. On the other hand, given the quick judgments they have to make, sometimes just the hint of skeletons in the closet can be enough to cause them to think twice. Indeed, people launch these rumors for the same reason that political advisors in the United States craft attack ads – because, like it or not, sometimes negative campaigning works.

It should be emphasize that these smear campaigns originate outside the College of Cardinals, not inside, and that there is generally a very genteel, respectful tone to the discussions among the cardinals themselves. At the same time, they still have to face tough choices about what issues matter for the future of the church, and which man is best suited to meet those challenges. Whether they like it or not, that involves them in building coalitions and advancing candidates – in other words, in politics.

Perhaps the final word on the subject should belong to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger. He was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected pope, and this was his response:

“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. ... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

Then the clincher: “There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.”

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