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from issue no. 01 - 2007

The conclave after Wojtyla

A review of the book by George Weigel Benedict XVI. God’s choice, on the ascent of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the pontifical throne

by Davide Malacaria

The Sistine Chapel prepared for the conclave of April 2005

The Sistine Chapel prepared for the conclave of April 2005

The book by George Weigel with the title Benedict XVI. God’s choice, recently published in Italy by Rubbettino, but which came out already in the United States shortly after the ascent of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the pontifical throne, is certainly very unusual. Unusual because, and what I am referring to is if not the most interesting, at least the most intriguing part of the volume, the well-known American theologian, with prudence and circumspection, has sought to introduce himself, and introduce the reader, to the inner secrets of the last conclave. With prudence, note, basing himself on his diary and on «other memoranda and notes written during the period in question, amplified by interviews and conversations in April 2005 with cardinal-electors […] Vatican officials, close observers of the Vatican scene and distinguished journalists».
Of course Weigel is not the only one to make such efforts, others have produced more or less interesting reconstructions of what happened behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel, but the author has a certain authoritativeness on his side.
If the core of the book is the conclave, the opening part, with its analysis of the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II («the Great», as he was described immediately after his death), has its own considerable interest. The author dwells on the multiple directions taken by the pontificate of Karol Józef Wojtyla, seeking to delineate the bases and its singularity. Among the many statistical observations given in the book, it certainly makes an impression to read that, in terms of the length of his pontificate, «some analysts calculated that, of the more than one billion Catholics on the planet, at least half had known no other pope». And again, this time in relation to his journeys, that «there was no doubt that Karol Wojtyla had been seen in live by more human beings than any man in the history of the world». And, again, with respect to his writings, that the Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II [Teachings of John Paul II], a collection of all his teaching, covers «more than thirty linear feet of shelf space [about 9 meters and 14 centimeters, ed.]».
For Wojtyla, according to the author, «the Church had to re-imagine itself [...] as an evangelical movement engaging the world in order to propose to it the good news of Jesus Christ». His was a «magisterium without precedents», starting from the first encyclical, the Redemptor hominis, «the first papal encyclical ever devoted to Christian anthropology», to the Laborem exercens, «the first to look to a poet […] as source of theological inspiration». And again, the many successes of the dead Pope are recalled: geopolitical ones, in first place the collapse of the Soviet Union; ethical, such as the victory at the international conference on “Population and development” held in Cairo in 1994, when Wojtyla was able to mobilize the world to prevent the United Nations from declaring abortion «a fundamental human right». And then the humanitarian successes, such as when he pushed the world into setting an end to the genocide in the Balkans. A «young Church» the one imagined by the Polish Pope, whose pontificate was marked, among other things, by the advance of a «host of renewal movements and new Catholic communities throughout the world». Weigel also recalls Pope Wojtyla’s reform of the Curia, the great impetus given to beatifications, the new relationship with the Jews, but above all the great ecumenic effort. And here one comes to the failures, where great dreams of the Pope, a definitive reconciliation with Orthodoxy and the normalization of relations with China, did not come true. Different the ecumenic result in North America where, the author notes, «the unapologetic global witness to the Gospel and his robust defense of the fundamental right to life of John Paul II did have one, perhaps unexpected, ecumenical effect, it reconciled large numbers of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to the idea that Catholics were, in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ».
Perhaps in depicting the human vicissitudes of the Polish Pontiff the author lets himself go with affection, at times verging on the hagiographic, but that is no reason to accuse the volume of factiousness, where instead it finds room for criticism also, such as the ridiculous one, cast in the columns of The Guardian of 2 April 2005, when the old pontiff was waning: «So the reign of Karol Wojtyla is ending. It was magnificent, but was it Christianity? It is a little too early to say».
And then the plummeting of the Pope’s health. And the various periods in hospital, with the Pope surrounded and tended by what had by then become his “family”, in special fashion his faithful secretary, Don Stanislaw Dsziwitz. The description of that agony is particularly affecting, with the Pope joking with his entourage – «What has the sanhedrin decided for me?» – and being moved by the crowds hastening to Saint Peter’s Square from all over the world. «The death of a priest», Weigel entitles this chapter. A title perfect in its compression. And then what happened after: the tears of the world, the stunned crowds, the immediate cries of «Saint now»...
Of the many reforms put into effect under Wojtyla’s pontificate analyzed in the book, certainly the most important, in terms of the designation of his successor, was that relating to the modes of election of the pope, set out in the apostolic constitution Universi dominici gregis, but that document is dealt with elsewhere (see the following article). What may instead be worth underlining here is the different views on the matter of the old and the new pope described in the book. In fact, according to Weigel, Wojtyla believed that the cardinal electors are not the real agents of the conclave, to the extent that in the Universi dominici gregis there are claimed to be «unmistakable traces of John Paul II’s conviction that the Holy Spirit is, in fact, the chief protagonist of a conclave». Whereas «Joseph Ratzinger had a different, if not ultimately contradictory, view of the Holy Spirit’s function in a conclave. In an interview on German television in 1997, he was asked about the Holy Spirit’s responsibility for the outcome of an election. His answer was striking: “I would say that the [Holy] Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather, like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus, the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined”».
According to the author the cardinals began talking of the successor only after the dead pope’s funeral mass. In their confidential talks an initial consideration seems to have emerged: the age of the future pontiff wasn’t a problem. Thus the view that would have it that a brief pontificate, that is an elderly pope, should alternate with a long pontificate, that is a relatively young pope, was put aside. In short, the future pontiff could also have been «in his early sixties», notes Weigel.
As for the problem of the nationality of Wojtyla’s successor, instead, things seem to have been a bit more complicated. The Latin American cardinals, according to Weigel, did not form a bloc for the election of one of themselves, so burying the possibility of a South American pope, wished for by many people instead. At the same time, however, it seems that the Latin Americans viewed the possibility of an Italian pope with some diffidence, because of the scarce consideration in which the Italians had held the South American Church in the past.
But there was something else also: «Knowledgeable Italian churchmen confirm that one of the new dynamics of the conclave of 2005 is the role that some of the renewal movements and new communities are trying to play in shaping the cardinals’ deliberations, – a role that is bringing to Rome some of the conflicts among these groups already underway in other parts of Italy (like Milan). […] If, as these Italian churchmen said, the renewal movement and new communities “are looking for a pope for themselves and not for the Church”, then that has to be addressed in the next pontificate».
George Weigel, Benedetto XVI. La scelta di Dio, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli (Cz) 2006. 372 pp., Euro18.00

George Weigel, Benedetto XVI. La scelta di Dio, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli (Cz) 2006. 372 pp., Euro18.00

As for names, instead, Weigel explains that in the pre-conclave talks attention was focused on three groups of cardinals. A first group of three, the most plausible, was formed by Joseph Ratzinger, Camillo Ruini and Jorge Mario Bergoglio. A second, less probable, was formed by Cardinals Dionigi Tettamanzi, Angelo Scola and Francis Arinze; finally, still less probable, Cardinals Ivan Dias and Norberto Rivera Carrera. From the beginning, however, Weigel explains, the figure of Cardinal Ratzinger stood out among the others. And that because both of the authority of the man, for the role he had played in the previous pontificate, and for the way in which he was managing, as Dean of the Sacred College, the period after Wojtyla and in particular the general congregations, preparatory to the conclave. There was even someone who, on the occasion of his seventy-eighth birthday, celebrated shortly before the beginning of the conclave, gave the German cardinal «an arrangement of white and yellow tulips, the papal colors […] creating a bit of an embarrassment, if an innocent and unintentional one». Another sign of the «vitality» of Ratzinger’s candidature was the hardening of the idea, cultivated by some cardinals (but extraneous to the future pope), of holding the rudder pointing to his candidature and «electing him with a simple majority», as allowed for in the Universi dominici gregis after the thirteenth day of inconclusive voting (see following article).
According to the author, as Ratzinger’s candidature took on consistency the oppositions to it also became defined. One, concerned with the themes of globalization, had Cardinals Cláudio Hummes and Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as pivot; another, the expression of the Roman Curia, was in favor of the return of an Italian pope; finally the «progressive» opposition, centering on the name of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, whose candidature however, was only a «marker», intended that is to block the nomination of Ratzinger and reach a subsequent compromise on another name.
It was with these antecedents that, on Monday 18 April, the conclave opened. According to the author’s reconstruction, during the first poll the cardinals’ votes went, apart from to Cardinals Ratzinger and Martini, also to Cardinals Ruini and Bergoglio. Weigel summarises what then happened as follows: «It can be reasonably assumed that Ruini and Bergoglio spent the evening of Monday night thanking their supporters, but urging them to shift their votes to Ratzinger. So, the Martini-as placeholder-strategy collapsed quickly and the various strands of opposition to a Ratzinger papacy began to peel off. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the first to shift were the curialists, attentive as ever to their interests and accustomed to ecclesiastical realpolitik. The less intransigent and more politically astute “progressives” were likely to have adjusted their thinking by late Tuesday morning, so that it is possible to imagine Cardinal Ratzinger’s vote going from around fifty on Monday night to over sixty on the first ballot on Tuesday morning, to a bit over seventy on the second Tuesday morning ballot». However, elsewhere in the book, another version of the facts is given: «According to a more likely scenario, Cardinal Ruini persuaded Cardinal Martini and Martini’s voters to move quickly to Cardinal Ratzinger».
In this way, on Tuesday 19 April, Cardinal Ratzinger became Benedict XVI; he who, Weigel remarks, had at most desired to bring votes together for someone else...
The final part of the book is less interesting, where the author tries to imagine what direction the new pontificate will take. In this sense, the book, written in 2005, appears dated. What strikes one in those pages is the insistence with which Benedict XVI is asked to reconsider Vatican diplomacy in line with the teachings of Saint Augustine, in practice by blessing the doctrine of the pre-emptive war. I wonder in puzzlement to which writings of Augustine the author of the book is referring…
Undoubtedly Weigel is an authoritative observer. But, despite that, his reconstruction of the agitated days of the conclave must be taken for what it is: probable, but not for that reason certain truth. Because what really happened under the frescoes of the Last Judgement is known only to those who had had the lot of watching the events from close up, behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel. And who may perhaps smile at reading Weigel’s book, as also at these poor lines.

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