Gordon Campbell on the politics of Papal selection

The very public physical deterioration of his predecessor John Paul II during his final years may well have been a factor in Benedict XVI‘s shock decision to resign. Certainly, the steely temperament and intellectual prowess of the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as the Church’s doctrinal watchdog in the 1980s would have made any similar decline seem a fairly intolerable prospect. The resignation now brings to an apparent end the “joint” papacies of Pope John Paul II and his ideological twin who have ruled the Catholic Church for almost 40 years, and whose social and doctrinal conservatism – much of it rooted in a very eastern European disdain for communism – has done so much to reverse the liberal tide of the Vatican II reforms.

I say an ‘apparent” end to their era, because the question now turns to succession, and to what possible role Benedict will play in the dealings of the next papal conclave. Officially, Benedict will play no role at all, but Ratzinger was the ultimate power behind the papal throne ever since the assassination attempt on John Paul II in 1981. It would be naïve to assume that he would absent himself entirely from the little matter of his doctrinal and administrative legacy. The difficulty of having a Pope Emeritus of this sort is one reason that Popes die in office. It is tidier in the halls of the Vatican and easier to explain to the faithful. How do you tell believers that someone whom they think speaks with God – and through whom God speaks – has hung up the phone on the Almighty?

On one level, the succession looks like an open and shut matter. Is the next Pope going to be a conservative? Well, duh. Surely, John Paul II and his ‘assistant pope’ (Ratzinger) appointed so many cardinals of similar ideological convictions to themselves that continuity would seem a certainty. From the mid 1980s through the late 1990s, a Vatican-driven selection process in Central and South America all but destroyed the strong liberal Catholic tradition that was once presided over by the likes of Dom Helder Camara in Brazil. To Ratzinger, this tradition of social engagement in the lives of the poor gave birth to liberation theology, and he spent a good part of the 1980s rooting that tendency out of the Church during his stint as spiritual policeman in charge of the Congregation of the Faith. (If only similar energy had been directed at the problem of sexual predation by priests.)

One spectre haunting the conservatives has now finally left the scene. Since the late 1970s, Carlo Maria Martini, a liberal Italian cardinal and former archbishop of Milan had been the prime papal candidate. To the conservatives, Martini was a nightmare. Yet if Mehmet Ali Agca had actually succeeded in his assassination attempt on John Paul II in May 1981, Martini would have almost certainly been elected Pope, and the Catholic Church today would be a quite different institution. Reportedly, Martini supported same-sex civil unions, the right of the terminally ill to refuse medical treatment, the distribution of condoms as a “lesser evil” to AIDS transmission and also seemed willing to discuss a priestly role for women and the issue of married priests.

Even as late as the mid 2000s, Martini was still a leading contender in what became a three-way succession contest between himself, Ratzinger and the conservative Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Ultimately, the conservative bloc united behind Ratzinger. Martini died last August, and in his final interview he issued a damning critique of a Church that he described as being “200 years out of date.” As Martini put it:

“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous…The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops. The paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.”

So much for the Catholic Church’s lost opportunity. Now 76, Bergoglio will be a contender again this time. As Pope, he would maintain social and doctrinal conservatism, while being packageable as a modern response to the vibrancy of Catholicism in South America. If however, the papacy does revert back to Italy for the first time in nearly 40 years, the main contenders will be Angelo Scola, Martini’s successor as Archbishop of Milan, or Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop of Genoa.

Things might not go smoothly however. The political mechanisms of papal selection have changed, under Benedict XVI. The stacking of the College of Cardinals with conservatives – as we saw last time around – does not guarantee a supermajority for a conservative candidate. Mindful of the potential for gridlock – and equally mindful of the sizeable hostility among the College of Cardinals to a Ratzinger papacy – John Paul II changed the selection rules from the old two-thirds majority requirement to a situation where a slim majority would suffice. This change significantly helped Ratzinger to carry the day. Once in office however, Benedict XVI changed the rules back again in 2007 and a two thirds majority is once more a requirement. If liberals want to throw the conclave into gridlock in order to block the likes of a Bergoglio, and thus push the result in the direction of a more liberal compromise candidate, they will certainly have more ability to do. And ironically, they will have Benedict XVI to thank.