Tuesday, March 11, 2014

One Year In, A Pope's Mandate

Ed. Note.: Originally published 11 March 2013 – Election Eve – under the headline "In Conclave, The Curia vs. The World."

Even if it wasn't a fully perfect snapshot, in light of the events of the 364 days since – and with a full Anniversary Show set to roll out – to start getting a sense of what's transpired and why, just read it again.

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“Testor Christum Dominum, qui me iudicaturus est, me eum eligere, quem secundum Deum iudico eligi debere.”

“I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”
Now, imagine saying those words while looking up at The Last Judgment... and all that stands between you and it is the urn into which you’ll then place your Ballot.

If that sounds frightening, it's by design – and come tomorrow, it’ll be the reality for the 115 cardinal-electors.

The ritual's no one-off, either; during every scrutiny, each in turn will hold up the folded card bearing his choice and make the centuries-old declaration out loud before casting his vote... until they produce a Pope.

The rest belongs to history, even as the world feverishly awaits the result.
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The road to a Conclave never begins with a slate of "contenders," but the discernment of issues and exchange of ideas – in this instance, 115 slates of experiences, philosophies, priorities and concerns on what's needed most at this moment in history, all weighing a mix of skill-set, background, personal qualities and, yes, image, plus the sliding scale of sending a message to the wider world while, internally, providing the optimal substance of leadership.

In short, the path begins with a question in each elector's mind: "What is the situation of the church?"  It ends with which melding of those answers in human form can make it to 77.

Naturally, the journey between the two is intense. To use the words of the canons, "by virtue of his office" the Roman Pontiff "possesses supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the church" – and once the Keys are handed over, they can't be taken back.

Most of all, though, both as individuals and a collective, putting the puzzle together has to start somewhere... and each time, both in its participants and the exigencies they face, the shape of the pieces is invariably different.

Still, assembling them almost always tends to begin at the center, with the strengths and weaknesses of what just came before. And this time, when one of the group quietly exclaimed that, in the wake of the series of debacles in the Curia over recent years, "We need someone who can take the Vatican back," it's not hard to see that sentiment as being nearly electable on its own.

From there, you just keep moving down the line. All 115 of them.

With time, a "hierarchy of values" begins to form – first individually, then in small groups, then larger ones. Only when you get a crowd in the mid-30s agreeing to similar answers on two or three other key questions can a picture – literally, a "profile" – begin to emerge... and only then, the rough lines of a bloc having come into place, does the question turn into the one everybody's waiting for:

"Who among us?"
...yet even with the shortlists of criteria formed and honed, the latter exercise is no easy climb. First, a coalition gathered around two or three key concerns can easily fall apart as 10 or 15 votes take issue with some lesser part of a proffered candidate's leanings or background. Just as much, meanwhile, every possibility has a liability – whether it's a judgment call that could come back to haunt a papacy at its outset, a lack of languages or some type of experience, an affinity or alliance some won't find appealing or, alternatively, an established cadre of enemies who'd work to undermine him without relent.

As a result, though many might see the Conclave's outcome as a gathering of support, in reality that process cuts both ways – in other words, who can draw the greatest backing because of the fewest objections or the least driven resistance?

Whatever happens over the days to come, just remember this: no man is perfectly prepared to become Pope. And even if he'll come into the grace of election and myth of the office, he won't simply remain human, but fated to spend the rest of his life under the world's most searing spotlight, one that expects perfection from him more than any other.

As all of 39 votes will serve to block election, the key to the Keys might just rest in the pitfalls – rather, the lack thereof. Add in that, to an even greater degree than last time, the skill-set is everything and the symbolic would be little more than incidental; should a candidate have the desired qualities, the once-powerful arguments of age and nationality are looking to be practically irrelevant.

If all that leads one to think this could be a week of surprises, you just might be onto something.

Either way, the closer we've gotten to Election Day, the more the proverb attributed to Giuseppe Siri has come to resonate anew.

"Il Papa si fa in Conclave" the legendary Genovese – a four-time elector – once said.

That is, "The Pope is made in the Conclave."

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As the broad sweep of things stands, the chaos of the Curia is indeed Issue One this time – because, the thinking goes, if the Pope doesn't have his own house in order, what can he accomplish anywhere else?

So powerful is the urge to "take the Vatican back" that, even if should a besieged Curial-Italian superbloc hold together – a development that would turn a cornerstone element of the prior "internationalized" Conclaves on its head – it wouldn't seem able to withstand the drumbeat coming from those outside.

Again, though, a number unable to win can still thwart an otherwise strong push, forcing it to become more amenable to get over the top. In that scenario, other possibilities able to break the resistance down or peel it away will need to be sought.

In another shift of the scene, the elections of 1978 and 2005 saw ideology – of course, as determined by the legacy of the Council – as a key factor. That's not the case this time – as ecclesial issues go, "reform" of governance usually belongs to the progressive camp, but many who wouldn't be considered "liberal" by any stretch appear to be on-board.

In this election, the fault line can duly be termed "The Curia vs. The World." And as a corollary to it, even if the scene remains immensely uncertain, yet another great upending of what's long been taken for granted is thought to be taking place.

The second-largest national group of electors for the last half century, the US cardinals have historically reflected the country's geographic and ecclesial spread, and were initially expected to continue the prior pattern by splitting into comfort zones more in keeping with their backgrounds.

As it turns out, perhaps that hasn't been the case – maybe many of the eight Stateside electors (of 11 total) chosen by B16 are of a different sort than their predecessors and see the advantage of sticking together... maybe they've been so galvanized by their "silencing" and the sympathy come of it that it's brought them even closer. In any event, the once-unthinkable – the makings of an incomplete, but still formidable "American bloc" – is in evidence, and like its microcosm from the West, a joining of forces over its span of outlooks and relationships will somehow be reflected in white smoke.

Back to the issue at hand, though, two points on which all this could turn: one direct, the other tangential yet still of consequence.

First, even if the Italian press has it right in its reports of a "ticket" (or several) being floated – in which scenario a winning candidate selects a pre-determined Secretary of State – don't put too much stock in it, because a "package deal" never works.

For one, the norms in place explicitly "forbid" that any "pact, agreement, promise or other commitment... to a certain course of action" be made by any cardinal or group should one of the deal's stakeholders be elected. What's more, any attempt to tie the new Pope's hands inevitably backfires given the perception that his freedom to act has been compromised even before his election's taken place. And most practically of all, to bind a pontiff to his most consequential personnel pick without taking account of the key quality for the effectiveness of his "prime minister" – namely, the complete confidence of the Man in White, and the personal mandate that comes with it – is a recipe for disaster.

As a matter of history, Secretaries of State don't come from the ranks of current cardinals at least as often as they do – both of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's immediate predecessors only received the red hat on their respective appointments to the top post, as did the most prominent Stato chiefs of the first half of the 20th century: Merry del Val and Pacelli. Still in all, that the focus on the management of the Curia has had to be addressed even by the old guard only serves to reinforce the depth to which it’s seen as a mess in need of cleaning – the only question over its extent is where a successful consensus can be forged.

On another front, what’s emerged as the second key quality will likely require some trade-offs with the first: a charismatic choice able to compellingly and convincingly present the faith – in word and through media, both at home and on the road.

Even more than a desired style of governance, this is where the calculus gets tricky: it's a question of personalities, where one elector’s champagne is easily another’s vinegar.

Yet as one op noted, “a good administrator just knows how to pick the right people” – that is, while fitting the first quality doesn’t necessarily entail a micromanager, the public part of the job (read: the mission to "confirm" the church in its faith) is something that can’t be delegated.

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And once the balloting ends, more than any other attribute, this Conclave's most bankable outcome will make for a revolution in itself.

In a word, it's the generational shift. After all, Karol Wojtyla was born in 1920 and ordained a priest in 1946, Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 and 1951. And whoever emerges in white, the movement toward a new era will be readily apparent in two new realities for Peter’s chair and the church it oversees.

The first shift is all but certain to come in the choice of a Pope used to a computer on his desk – and, odds are, even a smartphone in his pocket. 

Much as Benedict launched the barque of Peter into the Twitterverse last December with a public tap on an iPad, the now-retired @Pontifex kept to penning his drafts in longhand, entrusting any cyber-work he's needed to aides and leaving his cellphone to his secretary's keeping. In all of eight years, meanwhile, with the tools becoming ever more diversified and easier to use while over a majority of the 2005 electorate have aged out, even this election's senior participants are well-adept at tapping out e.mails on phones, working with tablets, and often even more.

Much as B16's resignation is widely thought to have "demystified" the papacy, the shift to an e-Pope would have a similar effect from the opposite direction: to shatter the bubble of information – or, to use another image, the bars of the ultimate gilded cage – which can easily insulate the office, and instead enabling a pontiff to hear the unfiltered world outside.

That might sound like an evolution of style, but this time around, the concerns of a prior reign hobbled by isolation make one's ability to keep appraised a key matter of substance in determining a viable candidacy among their own.

And then, there is the ultimate ad intra watershed. Fifty years since Vatican II opened, for the first time since the Council, the new Pope will not have been present at it – and the way things are looking, he might not have even entered seminary before its close.

In other words, after decades of its interpretation by pontiffs who were Fathers or periti and the resulting wider fights over the legacy, the Roman pontiff will now effectively have the post-Conciliar church as his sole reference-point. 

With that, modern Catholicism's biggest page will be turned... and in a way a 2,000 year-old fold hasn't known for quite some time, a different story begins in earnest. 

For what it'll look like, though, we'll just have to wait. 

Buckle up.