Sizing Up the Papal Prospects: A Leading Vatican-Watcher Assesses the Implications of the Largest Consistory in History

By John L. Allen, Jr.
Spring 2001

Presumably John Paul II and Ted McCarrick agree on many things. Otherwise it’s a safe bet that the pope would not have dubbed McCarrick his new top man in Washington, D.C., Nov. 21, and then quickly made him a cardinal Feb. 21.

We know one thing for sure, however, upon which the two men are in sync. John Paul II, they tell us, could well be in power until the end of this decade.

The pope made the prognosis on Jan. 21, the day he announced plans to hold a consistory. That afternoon he said something that wound up in the next day’s Roman papers: “Since I beatified Pius IX, I hope he will help me reach the years of his pontificate.”

Pius IX, the longest-serving pope in church history, reigned more than 31 years, from 1846 to 1878. John Paul would not cross the mark until 2010.

McCarrick, meanwhile, made the same end-of-the-decade projection virtually his first comment to reporters after the consistory. Joining the press atop the North American College, McCarrick said he does not expect to vote in a papal election. “I’ve got nine and a half years left,” the 70-year-old said, referring to the rule that cardinals over 80 cannot participate in a conclave. “I think this pope is good for another nine and a half years.”

Despite the informal taboo on discussion of the succession while the pope is still alive, several cardinals said privately during consistory week that conversations about the issues facing a conclave, if not candidates, were in fact under way.

If the pope and his new lieutenant turn out to be right–and, after all, their guess is as good as anyone’s–speculation today about a possible successor to John Paul II is pointless. If a few days is a lifetime in politics, nine years is a geological epoch. The names, the issues, the battle lines would all be transformed dozens of times. Cardinals in their mid-seventies now, just about the right age according to some theories, would be ineligible.

But what if they’re wrong?

No one knows, not even the pope himself, when his term will end, unless Wojtyla has a surprise in store in the form of a resignation, but that appears less likely with every new trip added to an already ambitious calendar. Despite the informal taboo on discussion of the succession while the pope is still alive, several cardinals said privately during consistory week that conversations about the issues facing a conclave, if not candidates, were in fact under way.

In light of the massive consistory John Paul held Feb. 21–44 new cardinals, the largest crop in church history–it’s therefore a legitimate exercise to ask what impact these additions might have on the politics of the papal succession.

To get a sense of how things stand, one first needs to grasp the party lines that divide the College of Cardinals, the body of 134 men who will elect the next pope.

Different Vatican-watchers size up these informal bodies of opinion in different ways, but we’ll identify three. Realize that these are ideal types, and no actual cardinal would fully recognize himself in any one group.

The first could be called the “border patrol” party. These are theological conservatives worried about the impact of relativism and secularization. They worry that Catholicism will gradually adapt itself to the point of being indistinct from the surrounding culture, placing no demands on anyone, making no claims, and in the end having nothing to offer.

The remedy is doctrinal clarity. Catholicism must have the courage to speak its truths boldly. The price may be diminished popularity, but the church will be more faithful and therefore stronger. This is a special imperative given what this group sees as a looming global showdown with Islam.

Their leader within the college is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and their charter document is Dominus Iesus, the controversial, Ratzinger-authored proclamation that denied salvation independent of Christianity.

The second group we might call the “salt of the world” party. They’re less interested in theological debate than in the impact of church teaching on the social and political realm. For this group the fundamental question is: How is the world different because the church is in it?

There’s a left wing to the “salt of the world” group interested in debt relief, globalization, and racial justice. For some time Brazilian Cardinals Paulo Evaristo Arns and Aloísio Lorscheider have been its standard-bearers. New Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez may now emerge to take a leading role. Though cardinals in this camp may range from traditional to progressive in their theological thinking, what unites them is an emphasis on battles outside the church.

The right wing of this party would be what Latin Americans call “integralists,” that is, cardinals interested in resurrecting the old alliance of church and state, ensuring both that the church has a privileged position and that social policies are shaped by church teaching. Leaders include Italian Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Camillo Ruini.

Last is the “reform” party, cardinals interested in continuing the overhaul of church structures launched by Vatican II. They favor greater decentralization, greater tolerance of diversity and experimentation, and a reform of the Roman curia in order to make the papacy more acceptable ecumenically.

The long-time champion of this view is Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan. He is joined by fellow moderates such as Godfried Daneels of Belgium and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

In the wake of the Feb. 21 consistory, the “salt of the world” and “church reform” parties were strengthened at the expense of the “border patrol” group.

New “salt of the world” cardinals include Rodriguez for the left-wing block and Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru for the right. Cipriani, the first Opus Dei cardinal, was so closely identified with his country’s former strongman that he is known locally as “Fujimori’s cardinal.”

It was the “reform” group, however, that got the most spectacular boost in new German Cardinal Karl Lehmann. Lehmann has dueled in the past with Ratzinger, and comes with a reputation as an astute political operator. Joined by fellow German moderate Walter Kasper, he will be a formidable player in a future conclave.

What does this mean for a possible successor to John Paul? First, none of the parties is strong enough to force a candidate by itself. Coalitions will have to be formed, compromises struck.

Second, much depends on where cardinals decide to start dividing up candidates. A famous Italian ambassador, a Sardinian named Mameli, carried out a study of papal elections just before John XXII was chosen, concluding that cardinals always ask themselves three questions:

  • Where should the new pope come from?
  • How old should he be?
  • Should he come from the Roman curia or a diocese?

If the first is the guiding question this time around, many signs point to a pope from Latin America, where fifty percent of Catholics today live. This will be the first papal conclave of the third 1,000 years of Christian history, imposing a special psychological pressure on the cardinals to be forward-looking.

If this is the early drift, expect the “border patrol” group to seek a coalition with the right wing of the “salt of the world” party. Possible candidates might include Colombian Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Mexican Norberto Rivera Carrera, or even Cipriani.

[N]one of the parties is strong enough to force a candidate by itself. Coalitions will have to be formed, compromises struck.

Meanwhile, the “reform” cardinals would look for leftist “Salt of the World” Latin Americans. Aside from Rodriguez, candidates might include Jaime Ortega of Cuba or Nicolás López of the Dominican Republic. A darkhorse would be José da Cruz Policarpo of Portugal, not a Latin American but someone with strong ties to the region, whose credentials as a pastor and theological moderate give him support in several camps.

It is unlikely the second of Mameli’s three questions will cause division. There is near-universal agreement that the new pope should be older than Wojtyla when he was elected at 58. If the early desire is for a consensus candidate in the right age range, a moderate pastor such as Dionigi Tettamanzi, 67, of Genoa could do well.

Mameli’s third question, however, may prove to be decisive. It will be the lead issue for the “reform” group. They will want a pope with both the theological outlook and the administrative wherewithal to discipline the Roman curia. Many cardinals from all blocks, annoyed by what they see as micro-management from Rome, could agree.

This impulse could lead to the decision to return to an Italian pope, perhaps just once, in order to get a man who knows the system well enough to reform it. If that’s what the cardinals want, most eyes will turn to Giovanni Battista Re, the new prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and for 11 years John Paul’s sostituto, the man who actually runs the church on a day-to-day basis. Though Re is a loyal servant, he is no Wojtyla clone. He came into curial service under the sponsorship of Giovanni Bennelli, Paul VI’s right-hand man, and some Vatican-watchers think he would carry through the reform program Bennelli ran on in 1978.

Other moderate reformers with the potential to make a run include Daneels and, perhaps, Kasper.

Lest anyone think that Vatican writers are the only ones who engage in this sort of speculation, it’s worthwhile to recall a Rome lunch that took place on May 18, 1978, with Cardinal Jean Villot, at that time Vatican secretary of state, and a handful of other prelates. The cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, was in attendance, celebrating his birthday.

As the story is told by Italian journalist Marco Politi, Villot pointed at Wojtyla and said that he was the only cardinal who could attain two-thirds of the vote in a future conclave.

Later, Villot sent a note to another of his dining companions, Polish Cardinal Andrzej Deskur. “I confirm what I said,” Villot wrote. “It was not a slip of the tongue.”

If only we knew what was being scribbled on cardinals’ notes today.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic weekly. His recent biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith) is published by Continuum.

Catholics for Choice