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The longer the conclave lasts, the bigger the surprise is likely to be

Journalists are floundering because they cannot see beyond the dichotomy of ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’

By on Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo (Photo: CNS)

I am asked by a non-Catholic friend for comments on the conclave. It’s difficult to comment because the media interpret everything along the line of bipolar oppositions, and of course it’s much more complicated than that. But anyway, here is my five cents worth for those who are interested.

1. Do not believe anything along the lines of a conservative/progressive clash. From the point of view of the secular world, all the cardinals are conservative: there is just not going to be a pope who changes Catholic doctrine, because popes are chosen among people who are Catholics. The question is: what kind of conservative is he likely to be?

2. The real standoff is between the curial cardinals and those who want reform. But the reformers are “progresssive” only in the sense that they want to clear out corruption and incompetence in the curia. In doctrinal terms they tend to be both conservative and “evangelical”, ie marked by a willingness to be more confrontational with regard to the aggressively secular, western elites.

3. The curial cardinals, traditionally styled as conservative by the media, are conservative only in the sense they want business as usual: ie for power to remain in their hands. Having not much in the way of convictions, they are not conservative in any ideological sense; indeed, the pugnacious attitudes of those I have termed “evangelical” make them nervous, because they are trained as diplomats and power brokers and they like to avoid confrontation with the above-mentioned secular elites, among whom they feel at ease.

It is worth noting that many journalists are floundering in attempting to navigate the sea of Church politics because they are only used to dealing with the dichotomy between the “progressive”, pastoral archbishops of major worldwide sees, versus “conservative” curialists. This schema, inherited from the 60s and 70s, is now totally irrelevant. In its stead, the theme of European/North American cardinals versus those from the global south has reared its head. But in itself this too is beside the point. The last two elections have made anything possible geographically by breaking the Italian stranglehold. But the cardinals will not choose according to geographical criteria: if an African, or an Asian or a South American is elected, it will be because of his personal qualities and where he stands on the issues I raise above, not of the colour of his skin. And this is as it ought to be.

So, the choice is indeed between change and more of the same. But the change in question will not be doctrinal but one of personnel and management style. It seems that as of now Cardinal Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is the favoured candidate of the reformers, and Cardinal Scherer, the Brazilian, that of the “business as usual” crowd. The latter are so discredited that they know that one of their own cannot win, and hence they are trying to talk up Scherer as a liberal, so as to gain credibility for him with the media and with the small remnant of moderately liberal cardinals. In reality they favour him because they think they can control him.

It must be stressed that “liberal” in this context means soft conservatism rather than the fully fledged counter-reformers. They are not liberals as that term is understood in US or European politics: the New York Times is not fielding a candidate. The most liberal wing in the College has been deprived of a leader by the death of Cardinal Martini, who in any case was unable to prevent Ratzinger’s election last time round. Since then, several prominent “Martinians” have reached the age limit or otherwise passed from the scene. Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and the Belgian Cardinal Danneels (the latter of whom was massively influential in Europe for decades) have suffered serious damage to their prestige from being exposed as protectors of pedophile priests.

My feeling is that Cardinal Scherer has no real chance because too many cardinals are totally browned off with decades of mismanagement and see through the manoeuvre. If the election happens quickly (on the second day) it will probably be Scola, but if it drags on beyond Wednesday this is likely to mean that the alliance of the curialists and the progressive rump has succeeded in blocking him. This may mean that they resign themselves to a non-Italian representative of the same camp – Scola, as an Italian, knows where the bodies are buried – and in this case I foresee the election of Canadian Ouellet, the Hungarian Erdo or, as an outsider, Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley (Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and the Sri Lankan Cardinal Ranjith are too confrontational, I think, to have a serious chance). It they succeed in blocking these (they are all “Ratzingerian” in terms of theology”) then all bets are off. The longer the conclave lasts, the bigger the surprise is likely to be.

  • John_Seven

    Excellent article! Clear and lucid, balanced and genuinely informative. One of the best, if not the best, I have read. 

  • Tony Roe

    I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you for taking the time to explain the unfortunate politics of our much loved non-political organisation

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    When Fr Mark Drew speaks, I listen. Please can we have more from this wonderful priest and writer?

  • Julian Lord

    Brilliant clear-mindedness, Father — thank you.

  • NYer

    This seems very reasonable. 
    I pray that whoever it is, he is a “Ratzingerian” reformer!

  • Marian

    Thank you.  Much clearer now.

  • Michael Isaac

    Extremely interesting. As a somewhat lapsed Catholic without great knowledge of the Church’s inner workings, this is quite informative.

    As someone with a fair amount of experience in complex, political organizations, the factional dynamics sound very familiar and make perfect sense.

  • $24570317

    A very interesting article. I will keep an eye out for more of this man’s writing.

  • jae

    Well said, right on the money however, we need a Pope that is humility personified, simple, down to earth-hands-on type of a leader, a good communicator with charismatic appeal to the young and disillusioned christians.

    And without any child abuse baggage.

    Viva Cardinal Tagle!

  • LocutusOP

    Good article, Father Drew.

    Apart from Cardinal Dolan being too confronational, I think your analysis is likely to be spot on.

    I would be very surprised though if the new Pope was not European, and pleasantly surprised if he’s from outside Western Europe as too many of them have cosied to the media and political classes.

  • Benedict Carter

    Tagle, the darling of the liberal-progressives. No thanks. He’s too young anyway. A Pontificate of fifty years is never a good thing. 

  • Gingangoolie

    Please times a billion!

    I, too, would love to read more from Father Drew.

  • GFFM

    I agree–good piece. However, Dolan is by no means confrontational–not according to American standards. He did very little in Milwaukee to clean house and change the very grave mess that Weakland left. His successor is doing the heavy lifting in that diocese. Dolan, most certainly, by any measure did not. His dealings with Obama have been underwhelming and his defense of marriage is always a day late and a dollar short.  My money is on Scola–he has the gravitas, the mind, and is connected to what is happening in modern culture and life. And, most importantly, he will govern.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP


    Does Conservative mean CONTROL-BASED PRESERVATIVE? JUST living for a PASSING WORLD having a long lasting illusion of having achieved some thing very great at the expense of others life!

    And Progressive does it mean interest-based principles and policies and stands? OF COURSE living for PASSING PLEASURES taken over by peer-pressure having no personalty and life of one’s own!

    Where is the place for TRUTH, JUSTICE AND LOVE in all these?

    When Collectivity is allowed to take over, individuals become FOOLS and they easily forget WE ALL HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE in this passing world.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Longislandmichael

    Great article Father Mark! Thanks for sharing.

  • tillic

    Excellent analysis.

  • jae

    Let’s see what the Holy Spirit has to say. However, Cardinal Tagle is far from being a liberal (modernist type). He is always faithful to the Teachings of the Faith and if associating with the poorest and marginalized is considered a modernist, then count me in as well as all the Popes and the Church.

  • parepidemos

    Nicely said.

  • Aspiring lay capuchin

    You are right sir journalist. Let them take their time. Good decisions do not come quickly. By the 7th ballot we should know. By Sunday we should have a new Pope. I hope they make an unexpected and brave choice like when they chose JP2. I hope the old horses cardinals will be also-rans. God willing. Holy Spirit come! Challenge the cardinals to make an imaginative and bold choice…

  • AMVolowski

    Good article Father Drew. Despite the common wisdom, a Papal surprise could very well be the American Cardinal Raymond Burke who for an American cardinal has been a best kept secret. Cardinal Tagle could signal the hugh growth of the Church in what is called the “global south”.

  • James M

    “The longer the conclave lasts, the bigger the surprise is likely to be”

    ## Seems that was a bit wide of the mark LOL

  • Julia Grimer

    Hi, Fr. Drew…do you remember me, Julia Grimer….it’s lovely to read your article and I’d like to hear your views on the new Pope

  • Julia Grimer

    what do you think of the new Pope?

  • Mnmhallam

    who cares

  • Fr Mark Drew

    Nice to hear from you Julia. Indeed I do remember you. Watch this space for more from me!