Monday, March 04, 2013

In the Conclave, A Question of History: Could Camarillo Hold the Keys?

For those of us who revel in the history of the shop, this Conclave brings some sizable milestones to the fore for American Catholicism, each reflecting the dramatic shift of the nation's largest religious body on the global church's brightest stage.

Of course, this new reality centers on the swing of momentum and prominence away from the old Northeastern "powerhouse" to the booming South and West: for the first time, Texas – where Catholics have just come to comprise the biggest faith-group – has a vote in this papal election, while in another occurrence without precedent, a cardinal-elector left for Rome from Tennessee. Yet most of all, likely for the only time – and under circumstances that, not long ago, would've been deemed as unlikely as a Pope's resignation – a trio of red-hats who've become the most influential group of seminary-mates the Stateside church has ever seen will be locked in the enclosure together, bearing between them the ability of forming a bloc to be reckoned with.

Most tellingly, the three hail not from the traditional flagships of Baltimore, Boston, New York – indeed, not even Philadelphia – but what's only recently become the largest diocese ever upon these shores: the 5 million-Catholic behemoth in Los Angeles, 70 percent of it Hispanic, its population doubled over the last two decades. And what's more, each having reached the papal "Senate" on drastically different paths, Cardinals Roger Mahony, Justin Rigali and William Levada combine a shared long-standing bond with a spread of philosophies and networks among the body so sprawling that, if they combined, could end up producing the next Pope... or, if nothing else, contributing mightily to the result.

In any event, "The Cardinals of Camarillo" would make a great book – in all honesty, it's one this scribe's wanted to write for some years. In all due praise, though, the Salt Lake Tribune's Peggy Fletcher Stack went first, producing an immaculate study on two of the group along with the other two bishops from their class back in December. (In retrospect, maybe it's a good thing the idea never got moved on, as we might just be coming to the culmination of the epic.)

Still, between their backgrounds – Mahony, the progressive activist who John Paul II iconically dubbed "Hollywood" and has since taken to blogging the interregnum in the face of controversy; Levada, the moderate theologian and all-around "fixer" who'd shock many by becoming B16's first red hat, and Rigali, the quintessential Roman heavyweight formed by Paul VI and the mighty Giovanni Benelli, who's been spending these days alongside his St Louis protege, now the cardinal-president of New York – together with spheres of influence which respectively reach deep into Latin America and the wider global south, the CDF-centric Curia built by Benedict and Bertone, and the Ratzinger crew's eternal rivals in the ancien regime of the Secretariat of State, practically every geographic, ideological and situational (e.g. Curia vs. diocesan) base of this Conclave is covered.

Despite their differing experiences and outlooks, the trio have remained close since their start at St John's Seminary (above) – Levada joins Mahony for part of the retired LA prelate's annual summer getaway at his Yosemite cabin, and as CDF chief, the former archbishop of San Francisco flew into Philly for Rigali's 50th anniversary as a priest amid the tumultuous fallout of the 2011 grand jury report on clergy sex-abuse that would expedite the legendary diplomat's departure. 

Last time, however, the triangle wasn't completed – only with Benedict's election did Levada become the highest-ranking American in Vatican history with the new Pope's nod to succeed himself at the head of the doctrine office, a choice born both from their own long, comfortable history, but likewise Joseph Ratzinger's desire for a US prelate to bring his bench's experience in tackling clergy sex-abuse onto the global stage. (Despite the flack he's invariably taken from more traditional elements, it bears reminding that as archbishop of Portland in the late 1980s, Levada was the lone American Ratzinger recruited to serve on the editing commission of what would become the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Within months of each other, only last summer did all three enter retirement. Yet in a voting college where a full quarter were only elevated in 2012 – and at least to some degree, are still getting used to the reality of themselves in scarlet, let alone as papal electors – the dynamic of this Conclave lends an even greater weight to the contacts and memory of the veterans who've bestrode the scene for decades and know the elements at hand well enough to start toward a consensus.

Ergo, can they join forces? At first glance, it'd seem pretty possible. So, then, will they? 

Of course, that answer now rests in the rapidly-shifting, seemingly volatile Roman air. Still, heavy as the talk of contenders might be out there – and, to be sure, that point is upon us where it counts – the reality of this moment lies most in the exchange of ideas, priorities, and what would and wouldn't float in the balloting. And amid the thick sea of it all, well, who'd have a more effective melding of minds than three friends of 50 years?

To be sure, all this is nothing more than speculation. Still, it's one born of experience. In any event, for now, the sheer possibility of the unique moment – and with all three in the Sistine, the wider watershed it signifies here at home, regardless of who might emerge – simply feels like story enough.

PHOTOS: St John's Seminary, Camarillo(2)