The looming conclave, Catholic populists and the “dubia”

looming conclave

Pope Francis has significantly changed the composition of the electoral college, even by adding to its number men from countries that had never before had a cardinal.

This reflects his push to de-Europeanize the Church and the body that will eventually elect his successor.

It is a very important institutional change.

But the pope, who turns 85 in December, has still not updated the norms regulating the conclave. He needs to do so soon, or there could be serious problems.

A recent article in the Italian journal of politics Il Mulino by the noted Church historian Alberto Melloni (one of my mentors) raises pressing questions concerning the next conclave.

This is a revised and updated version of a very important book he wrote in the early 2000s on the history of papal elections.

It first provides a brief analysis of the most recent changes in the rules for the conclave, especially John Paul II’s Universi Dominici Gregis (1996).

This text specifically designated Rome as the only place where the papal election can take place, thus abrogating the old rule according to which the conclave took place wherever the pope died.

Then Melloni mentions the slight modification Benedict XVI’s made to Universi Dominici Gregison February 22, 2013, shortly after announcing his resignation from the papacy.

Benedict restored in all cases the necessity of a two-thirds majority for the election of the Roman Pontiff, undoing the possibility of election by simple majority that John Paul had introduced.

Freedom of the next conclave is in danger

Melloni makes it clear that Francis has no obligation to update the norms of the conclave, but he urges the pope to do so based on two new facts.

The first is Francis’ creation of new special norms to fight sexual abuse by clergy and the failure of the bishops to act, in a system that can sometimes take the shape of summary justice to the detriment of fairness, due to the external pressure to look tough on offending clergy.

The second is Francis’ restoration of the “temporal justice” system in the Vatican, which could expose cardinals to instrumental accusations, capable of excluding them from the conclave or at least the list of papabili (leading contenders).

These new developments, says Melloni, put the freedom of the next conclave in danger.

“Without some modifications in the constitution regulating the conclave, the 21stcentury could mean the return of a formidable veto power capable of altering the result of the papal election: a veto power no longer exercised by Catholic monarchs, but by the new empires of social media and those who have the technology to use them or an interest to mobilize them,” he warns.
Four proposed changes

Melloni advances four proposals for updating the rules for the conclave.

His first suggestion is to intensify the clausura. He says all the cardinal electors should be required to reside at the Santa Marta Residence as soon as they arrive in Rome, rather than be allowed to wait until the conclave actually starts.

His second recommendation is that the “general congregations” — that is, the daily pre-conclave meetings of all the cardinals, including non-electors over the age of 80 — should also include sessions in clausura-type atmosphere for electors only.

Melloni’s third proposal is to change the frequency of the ballots: only one ballot every day for the first three days; two ballots every day for the next three days; and four for the three days after that.

He says this would give the “different parties” in the conclave more time for discussion. It would also liberate the electors from media pressure coming to produce the new pope quickly.

The fourth and final proposal also has to do with the risks of a hasty election.

Melloni suggest new rules should give the cardinal that has received enough votes to be pope more time to pray, reflect and scrutinize his conscience. This would allow him to see if there is anything in his past (also when he had to deal with cases of abuse) that could expose the papal election to dubia (doubts).

These are all thoughtful and judicious proposals and others could also be added, especially in light of the fact that the current cardinal-electors barely know one another.

Even more serious than once believed

In his more than eight years as pope, Francis has gathered all the living cardinals together for a general meeting only once (February 20-21, 2014). But free-flowing discussion was very limited.

Such gatherings seem to be even more important now than ever before.

First of all, the current group of cardinals includes men from geographical areas that have never been represented before at a conclave.

And second, the old clerical networks that were once part and parcel of the papal election no longer have the same importance they once had. They have been replaced by other networks of influence.

It is important to note that the situation may be even more serious than Melloni acknowledges, for at least two reasons.

The first reason has to do with a particular ecclesial situation in the United States, where we have seen direct threats to the freedom of the pope and, implicitly, to the next conclave.

The sexual abuse case of Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal, and the opportunistic attacks against Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to Washington, have unleashed a wave of indignation in some Catholic groups and networks.

Anti-Francis ideologues already at work to influence the next conclave

This has revealed the anti-institutional, nihilistic turn of conservatism today – even inside the Catholic Church.

For instance, there is something called “Red Hat Report”, which keeps files on all the cardinal-electors. One can only imagine how this will be used they when they again gather in Rome to elect the next pope.

This initiative must be seen in the context of the ideological fury against Pope Francis, which is apparent in certain clerical, intellectual, financial and political circles in the United States.

They are, all of them, well connected with the new media ecosystem that shapes the narratives on the state of Catholicism and Church politics.

It would be a grave mistake to underestimate what they are likely to do with all the information and influence they have amassed in order to shape the outcome of the next conclave.

Before, during and after the 2020 presidential campaign, many Catholics (including some bishops) refused to acknowledge and accept that Joe Biden had been legitimately elected.

A similar scenario could also happen with the election of the next pope. Viganò and his supporters broke the ultimate taboo in institutional Catholicism by demanding that Francis resign. If one can try to unseat a pope, anything is possible.

The Catholic Church in the United States is in a situation of soft or material schism between two different groups. They are sharply divided over Francis’ pontificate.

The attempt by Viganò and others to oust the pope in August 2018 was the ecclesiastical equivalent of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill in Washington by Donald Trump’s supporters.

But at the next conclave, there will be a power vacuum in Rome that did not exist in August 2018. The situation could be more, far more dangerous than many expect.

It is naïve to assume that those who have always accused Francis of not being Catholic would refrain from doing anything and everything possible to have their way at the next conclave.

Cranking up the rumour mill

The second reason the situation may now be more perilous than that which Melloni acknowledges in his article (published in May) is what happened on July 4.

That is the evening Francis had surgery at the Gemelli hospital in Rome.

After a ten-day stay at the hospital, the pope is now back home at the Santa Marta Residence. It is not clear what recovery will look like for a man of his advanced age but some are already beginning to speculate about his ability to continue governing the Church.

Rumours about which cardinals have the best chances to succeed Francis have also started up.

The pope’s decision to publish the recent “motu proprio” abrogating Summorum Pontificum is a sign of his determination. But some will read it as conveying a sense of urgency in light of the pope’s declining health and the approaching end of his pontificate.

Francis can be an effective and incisive legislator, as we have seen in many other areas. But he is sometimes reluctant to change institutional mechanisms, preferring instead to initiate long-term spiritual reforms aimed at transforming the ways of the Church over time.

But he’s taking a big risk by not updating the rules that govern the conclave or thinking he can wait until the very end of the pontificate to do so.

This is an urgent matter that cannot wait.

Probably the biggest change since the last two conclaves — which elected Benedict in 2005 and Francis in 2013 — is the power of Catholic influencers in mainstream media, digital media and social media.

Since 2013, small groups of people with extremely idiosyncratic agendas (including some prelates with a vast media and social media following) have been crafting an ideological narrative of the Church.

They cannot resist the temptation to create a media storm when they don’t get their way.

Just look at the way some of them have reacted to Francis’ “motu proprio” restricting the use of the Old Latin Mass.

Then you’ll have an idea of the havoc they could cause at the next conclave.

  • Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University (Philadelphia) and a much-published author and commentator. He is a visiting professor in Europe and Australia.
  • First published by La Croix International. Republished with permission.
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