A Third World Pope Is Suddenly Less Likely

By  Roger A. McCaffrey  

Even in its exhausted condition—the result of its effort to be politically liberal and morally conservative at the same time—the modern papacy nevertheless remains a pivotal Western institution. But close observers of the Roman scene have long conceded that the next Pope could be African, or Latin American, or even Asian. Much enthusiasm in Catholics of all persuasions is engendered by the very idea...which is by itself a barometer worth heeding. (Cardinal-electors come from our own ranks.) There are a handful of Third World eligibles. If their like-minded colleagues decided to form a bloc, they could have their Pope, with the help of what the New York Times would be calling Visionary Europeans and Americans.

But a Third World Pope is now dramatically less likely. The resignation in Rome on December 13 of Bernard, Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston, has been cataclysmic for the Church. Shock waves extend into the deepest recesses of the Vatican - and for sure into the Sistine Chapel a year or two or three from now, where John Paul II's cardinals will gather to elect his successor.

The long arm of Cardinal Law reached much, much farther than most casual observers can imagine. Those of us who keep an eye on Church politics take as a given that he was responsible for placing at least 20% of all American ordinaries (bishops with dioceses) in their positions - and checkmating the appointments of others.

He claimed a far greater number of priestly protégés than, say, his friendly rival, the late John Cardinal O'Connor. No one else in the U.S., the Roman Catholic Church's richest preserve, came close.

One of Law's invisible levers of power was overseeing the commission in charge of "Anglican-use" parishes, of which there are several, with more soon to come. These are entire groups, formerly "high-church" Episcopalian, which convert en masse to Roman Catholicism, and are permitted by Rome to use their beautiful liturgy with a few key changes, rather than having to adopt the banal contemporary "Roman" liturgy. In an interesting twist, especially for the allegedly-conservative Law, many of their priests are married; they are nevertheless re-ordained to serve in their parishes under Rome's auspices.

His Eminence was scheduled to visit one such parish in Texas a few years ago, and a friend of mine was in charge of his travel arrangements. Speaking with Law's secretary, my friend was informed crisply, "The Cardinal travels first class." Appropriate arrangements were made for His Eminence then—and rest assured, are being made now, across the Atlantic. 

Law being Law, it's fair to speculate that his first thought as he made the rounds at the Vatican was of himself. Meeting with the Pontiff for the cameras was necessary, of course. But the handful of no-name cardinals who run the Church were just as important to consult, to nail down certain matters for Law: How would he live after resigning? What position could they assure him?

And the most important question: If indicted in Boston, how much protection could the Pope guarantee? Would Law, for example, be provided one of the apartments within the ultra-safe confines of the Vatican city-state itself?

Apparently satisfied with the answers, His Eminence precipitated the earthquake felt in every jittery chancery office on either side of the Atlantic, resigning not only as Cardinal Archbishop of Boston—which he made a center of influence at least as significant as Cardinal Richard Cushing's in his Camelot-era heyday—but in the event, Samson-like, surrendering all his power for something resembling immediate gratification.

All that remains in his arsenal is Law's vote in the next conclave.

And it is precisely the next conclave that the Boston archbishop has re-shaped - in ways he did not intend.

What was once an open seat, so to speak, with any number of contenders, has become an Italian's to lose once again. But with so many Euro-American hides on the line, this time, unlike 1978, they probably won't lose it.

Eight to ten percent of the votes for the next pope will likely be American. Law himself, once a paragon of Catholic civil rights advocacy, might well have cast his for a black. Ditto the center-left Cardinal Mahony—and any number of conservatives to whom Nigeria's genially definite Cardinal Arinze appeals, almost viscerally.

But no American cardinal whose job is (suddenly) in jeopardy could risk voting for an African or Latin American candidate. A safe Italian with a soothing track record is now the only way to go. Italians are practiced at waiting out storms, regally confident in their use of supreme authority, and loyal to those who give it to them (unless threatened by same).

Above all, Italians, from millennia of experience, know how to handle hostile civil powers. Journalists? CNN? Not a problem, not a problem. So Law and his colleagues will be safe in any storm, seen or unforeseen, living out their lives in the tranquility and comfort to which they are entitled after their hard laboring in the vineyard, as we Catholics know.

It isn't that Latins or Africans are unreliable, American and European cardinals will hasten to assure themselves. Why, look at all the worthy men among them, most of them raised in unspeakable poverty, each more mediagenic than the next! It's just that they lack experience, and this terribly delicate period in Church history calls for a steady hand. John Paul was new and different, the results are decidedly mixed, and now Bernie—Bernie!—has been forced out. Good Lord, what next?

The Church's leaders are badly shaken in the aftermath of Law's resignation. Quite probably others, like Law, for a wide range of personal and political reasons, have protected and/or promoted priests who molest children. None ever expected having to consider resignation. That's what treasury secretaries and senators do. Maybe a bishop or two, caught red-handed. But cardinals, powerful ones, never.

In this atmosphere, three Italians at present seem ever more likely to be elected Pope if, as seems possible, John Paul II is called to his reward in the next couple of years. Cardinal Re, the dependable insider who heads the Vatican office for appointing new bishops, comes first to mind. Or Cardinal Tettamanzi of Milan, who even before the sex scandals was on everyone's short list. Or indeed Cardinal Martini, the recently retired Jesuit, highly esteemed (though often denigrated by conservative cardinals) Scripture-scholar. He plays the press perfectly, yet is a consummate insider.

Seventy-six and with early Parkinson's, Martini might have been stricken from papabili lists—except that now, all Italian candidates are getting a second look, after the Great Boston Earthquake of '02.

Roger A. McCaffrey (email him), is a publisher and writer in Florida and the former publisher and editor of two Catholic magazines

December 28, 2002