The election of a new pope is inevitably a major news story, having been depicted numerous times in novels and movies. Encased in the exotic traditions of antiquity along with queues of cardinals draped in blood-red cassocks (intentionally symbolizing the blood they must be willing to shed for the church) while chanting ethereal invocations in Latin to the Holy Spirit — a conclave is the stuff of high drama.
Add to this the rumors of financial and sexual scandals among men vowed to chastity, the entire scene becomes a veritable perfect storm. Shakespeare might have condemned it "as improbable fiction" were it portrayed on a stage (Twelfth Night). But this is real life.
Behind the sets and grandeur of Bernini's colonnades and under the frescos of Michelangelo sit human beings, much like other human beings, with all the same foibles, ambitions, vices, as well as sincere piety and hope for the future of an institution they do indeed love, have given their lives to and, yes, even sometimes betray.
And so we come to both the drama and the reality of the election of a new pope. As has already been widely noted, this election is rare in that a successor is being selected even while his predecessor is still alive, something that last occurred almost two centuries before Columbus set sail to find new trade routes to the Indies.
To say the retirement of a pope is a break with tradition is an understatement, and this is made all the more notable in that it has been undertaken by a man most noted for his adherence to Tradition.
But there is tradition and there is Tradition in the Catholic religion. What Benedict XVI was bound to, indeed what any member of the faithful is bound to, is the Tradition of the Apostles, that is, orthodoxy or 'right belief" — doctrines and dogma (that's right, even in this age of inclusivity, Christians still make truth claims expressed in their creeds and doctrines). All this is to say that Benedict, while embracing an option available to him that had been rarely exercised, is not abandoning the Tradition. Canon Law provided for this possibility, and for reasons explained by the Pope Emeritus himself, and speculated upon by pundits and conspiracy theorists of all stripes.
Still, the potential consequences of such a decision are complex and forms part of the discussion that is taking place among the College of Cardinals in their General Congregations, which began Monday. Such General Congregations, a normal part of the process leading up to a conclave, gives all cardinals (including those over 80 who are not electors in the conclave) an opportunity to assess the state and needs of the church as well as one another.
Probably the topic of most speculation since the announcement of Benedict's resignation is who the next pope will be. No one, not even the most well-informed Cardinal or Vatican journalist, has a clear answer to that question. Anyone telling you otherwise is dreaming. From one pontificate to the next, the difficulty of predicting the outcome varies. This time, for a number of reasons, a prediction is as difficult as can be. A quick conclave, over in four ballots (which is what it took to elect Benedict), is unlikely.
The first is that the usual decline in health of a pope provides a period of sifting: Inquiries into the background, experience, competencies and style of those who might be pope (termed papabili, literally "popeable"). Benedict's abrupt resignation eliminated both that gestation period and the time the cardinals would have over the traditional nine days of mourning, celebrating masses together in Rome. Instead, the cardinals have gone directly into the General Congregations.
A second factor is that unlike the transition from John Paul II to Benedict, there is no obvious front-runner, no single cardinal that universally stands out as an obvious successor.
What does all this mean for the days ahead? Time. Time for the sifting process to allow the cardinals to get to know one another in this new light; time to get to the bottom of the problems related to the spirituality and governance of the Roman Curia (the bureaucracy that is supposed to help formulate, administer and communicate the decisions of the pope), which, even before the "Vatileaks" exposure, was well-known for its rivalries and cronyism; and time for the actual election process itself, due to procedural changes introduced since the last conclave, now requiring a two-thirds vote of the cardinals to elect a pope for up to 33 ballots.
In the next two weeks or so, you will hear much of the media asking a rotating list of questions as to the profile for the next pope: Will he allow priests to marry, ordain women, permit contraception? Such questions, while of interest to those mildly intrigued or bemused by the church, nonetheless betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how authentic Catholics see themselves.
For them, the church is not some kind of hybrid spiritual-political movement needing to be attentive to its constituencies priorities and preferences, one that was started to respond to various trends in society and culture. The church does see not see itself an institution or a club that must alter its beliefs to reflect the lifestyles of its members or clients. The church is not something Christians design or make up, but something that Christians inherit. It is seen as the revelation of God requiring a loving acceptance of the truth it discloses to the world. People are free to reject that truth, of course. But the church exists to propose (not impose) its claims. In this sense, the church does not reflect or so much respond to culture as it creates culture, centered on Christ and his intransigent claim on the human heart.
For some, this will be repulsive. I hope it, at least, will be informative. But for others, for millions upon millions down the two millennia, it will constitute one's highest call.
I suspect that the cardinals meeting in Rome will be looking to find one of their number sufficiently grounded in this view of existence, in this Tradition, who they believe will be confident and even winsome in communicating these ancient claims to an increasingly secular and skeptical world; a man who will have sufficient insight into the human condition to enable him to uncover the many competent and even saintly gems that exist within the Curia — along with the backbone to eliminate the others. I suspect they will look for a man of sufficient dedication, passion and charity who will emulate the flawed fisherman whose shoes he will fill.
Originally published at The Detroit News