Papal conclave: What lurks behind the white smoke?

By Harry Hagopian
March 10, 2013

"I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth." - Pope Benedict XVI.


The Conclave of the College of Cardinals starts in earnest this week, when the Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations, Monsignor Guido Marini, will solemnly announce extra omnes - or the “outside, all” - and the 115 cardinals will find themselves alone in the Sistine chapel alongside their faith, consciences and beliefs.

In fact, there are discreet hopes that a new pope will be elected quite promptly. Many names - papabile - are already being discussed quite openly. But as I said in a Sky TV interview on the day that Benedict XVI announced his retirement, the choice would depend largely on the priorities that those cardinals - the princes of the Roman Catholic Church - would lift up in their deliberations.

Will it be an issue of management that will usher in a Vatican Spring, as Hans Küng, professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen and author of the forthcoming book Can the Church Still Be Saved?wrote in a recent New York Times article? Or will it be one of making the Church more inclusive and global, and therefore perhaps elevating to the Petrine throne someone who hails from Brazil, the Philippines or Nigeria?

Could age matter (as I think it does) in which case those far too young or far too old will be excluded from the ultimate office? Finally, do North Americans, from Washington to Quebec, stand any chance at all?

I am not willing to be sucked into a pusillanimous game of odds, since this is not what matters to me personally. As a lay Christian who constantly wrestles with his faith, what matters to me is to herald in a pope who will bring with him an inner strength to manage an increasingly accident-prone (dare I add scandal-prone) institution, and whose pastoral gifts would also help him invite Catholics back into the fold with love, not compulsion and with understanding, not power.

Moreover, the new pope will also have to continue the tireless work being done in ecumenical relations as well as in inter-faith dialogue.

I never came to know Pope Benedict XVI in the way that I knew his predecessor John-Paul II. But I would agree that the pope-emeritus (a rather uncomfortable title for me since ‘emeritus bishop of Rome’ would surely have possibly been more apt and less confusing) is admittedly a towering intellectual man and someone who was lovingly devoted to the church and protective of it.

However, despite the many self-congratulatory pieces about him in the media, the fact remains that he was not fully equipped with the necessary tools to deal with the inflating and contemporary issues that ate away at the church.

I could write about the unfortunate consequences of ‘Vatileaks’ on the Church and the gaffes that occurred during Benedict’s papacy, or else the way he was (some would say sinisterly) betrayed by his butler. But in my opinion, the chief issue that plagued this short papacy was the abuse that was perpetrated by priests or else covered up by their superiors over many decades.

Simply put, the Vatican failed to deal with them in a way that would leave a positive, salvific impression upon the many millions of believers. I think of Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of Philadelphia who retired in 2011, or of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, who was questioned over the abuse of children by priests in his former archdiocese of Milwaukee. I also recollect Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose transgressions have emerged more recently and caused deep anger among Catholics in Los Angeles, where he is archbishop emeritus, when a court ordered the release of files relating to over 120 priests accused of child sex abuse alleging that Mahony alongside other officials had protected from prosecution.

Closer to home, I can think of Cardinal Seán Brady, the primate of All Ireland, who came under pressure not to attend conclave next month. He faced calls to resign over his failure in the 1970’s to report the activities of a serial abuser and his apologies have done little to quell the anger. Few weeks ago, Christine Buckley of the Aislinn (‘Dream’ in Irish) Centre for abuse survivors in Dublin that was established by a former Taoiseach in 1999 suggested that Brady would express his apology best “by not going to Rome”. Her appeal, however, fell on deaf ears since the cardinal will indeed take part in the conclave.

Only recently, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic clergyman, admitted to incidents of sexual misconduct throughout his career ever since 1965. Those admissions followed allegations in early February 2013 by three serving priests in the cardinal’s former diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and by a former priest. The latter said he left the priesthood after he was sexually propositioned by O'Brien in the 1980’s. Other incidents supposedly involving O'Brien, who became archbishop in 1985 and then cardinal in 2003, included a series of ‘drunken fumbling’ and unwanted advances.

As Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times, such cases will inevitably ratchet up the talk about hypocrisy in a church that preaches a purity that its own clerics cannot seem to maintain and casts stones while being quite far from blameless.

In a recent panel discussion over the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, one panellist with me evoked two mitigating circumstances for such behaviour. The first had to do with the wages of celibacy, coupled with the loneliness and longing, that preyed over priests whilst the other was that the culture of past decades was different from ours today.

In my opinion, both those arguments are hugely dangerous and also hugely wrong in their own right as they try to justify legally criminal deeds let alone exonerate humanly predatory acts. Yet, I would also like to add that we are all sinners and therefore painfully fallible: so for me, legally but also morally, what is much more compromising than the actus reus itself is the mens rea or the deliberate intention to cover up those transgressions, shield them from the public eye and therefore shun the due process of law.

But all this is not singly a Pope’s fault. He is only one man who inherits a history and often does his utmost to run a big institution of 1.3 billon adherents. What is more worrying to date are the Curia or governing body - the clerical equivalent of civil servants - and the perennial challenge is whether any pope will succeed in controlling and reforming them, no matter which continent he will be elected from in the next few days.

The Curia are inveterate stakeholders in the Vatican and their power should be curtailed for the good of the whole church. It is no good to invoke tradition in order to oppose reform. After all, even the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, while addressing many concerns of reformers and modern critics, was nonetheless thwarted by a power-wielding Curia which managed to implement only some of the requisite changes.

The Roman Catholic Church stands at many crossroads: it needs to address those abuses transparently and forthrightly. But it should also enhance the transparency of the Vatican bank, or the Institute for Works of Religion, which has for decades been the subject of dark intrigue. The recent appointment by Benedict of a German aristocrat, Ernst von Freyberg, as its new president is most encouraging. But more needs to be done in order to adhere to the Moneyval Report that has urged the Vatican to improve its oversight and coordination with Euro-zone financial institutions. Finally, the Vatican should also pray over issues of celibacy and the role of women in the church.

It is personally heart-rending for me to see a Pope welcoming Bishop Richard Williamson - a holocaust denier - from the Society of St Pius X back into the fold while castigating a group of American nuns working for social justice for flouting Church teaching and supposedly espousing radical feminist creeds.

If the next conclave were to elect a pope who goes down the same road of complacent traditionalism and occasional cover-ups or intrigues rather than persevering upon the path of reform, the church will lack the renewal it sorely needs to stay freshly relevant to its main mission.

A recent piece by Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow ( challenged the trope that most church disagreements boil down to a straightforward conflict between so-called ‘traditionalists’ and so-called ‘liberals’.

He writes. "The [mistaken] implication is clear: Christian tradition and scripture is mostly about fixity and conservatism, whereas change and development mostly arises not through proper engagement with this deposit of faith, but through the alien intrusion of modern liberal ideology.

"In short, semper reformanda is and should be a good, protesting principle of the (re)new(ing) catholicity that the whole church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, needs as we move out of Christendom and further into territory uncharted by the ‘church of power’.

"That in turn requires a hermeneutical approach to tradition (what we have inherited) based on re-interrogating those sources in connection to contemporary questions in such a way that they can nourish the future with wisdom that is both ancient and new.

"This alternative to a discordant, fruitless ‘traditionalist’ versus ‘liberal’ standoff might be called ressourcement and aggiornamento.

"As one of its articulate exponents within Catholicism, Dr Marcellino D'Ambrosio, has put it, what we discover when we so engage is that 'the Christian tradition is a vital and dynamic force which is not retrograde, but [forward looking]',” concludes Barrow.

I accept the argument that the moral authority of a pope emanates from the spirit of Christ. I equally believe in the indefectible mystery of the church and the fact that there are saints just as there are sinners. But to use a hackneyed cliché, I seek ‘a pope who will be more of a Francis of Assisi and less of a Renaissance pope’, a man of integrity who will empower those around him to exercise zero tolerance against those - few or many - who have blurred the face of Jesus Christ on earth.

In fact, I find it quite compelling that this conclave is taking place during the Lenten season. Perhaps the cardinals who eventually decide upon the hue of the smoke coming out of the Vatican chimney will show humility, remorse and above all else abundant love as they recall that Christ died on the Cross to atone for our sins. If they also remember the example of the Early Church and the dedication of a motley bunch of Christians who founded it, we might all still delight in the wondrous awe of calling ourselves Christian pilgrims in this world. Otherwise, the faithful road ahead would remain bumpy: a road incidentally that does not spare other churches or other faiths in dire need of renewal and revival too. But that is a story for another day.

For this Conclave, for today, let us not simply "rust unburnished but shine in use" (from Ulysses, by Lord Alfred Tennyson).


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.