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All about the conclave and the next pope


By Thomas J. Reese
Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $24.95


Back in 1986, Peter Hebblethwaite published In the Vatican. He had wanted to call it "Inside the Vatican," but another English Catholic journalist, George Bull, had produced a volume with that title four years earlier. Bull's offering was hushed, reverential, and a touch overawed by the privilege of peeking into the offices of the Holy See's bureaucracy. Hebblethwaite's study, on the other hand, as readers of this paper might have expected, was sprightly, incisive and affectionately critical of the doings of the pope's men -- and the occasional woman -- as they struggled to control the Roman Catholic church and mold it to their thinking.

Tom Reese's latest book lies somewhere between the two, and is a good deal bigger than either. Reese, a Jesuit, is not a journalist but a political scientist whose doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, was on the politics of taxation. Since then he has been a lobbyist in Washington, an associate editor of America magazine, and now for more than a decade a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. During these 10 years or so he has turned his political skills to investigating the workings of the Catholic church in the United States. Inside the Vatican is the natural culmination of his researches.

This is not a book for tourists. You will not be able to find your way around the museums and archives with this in your hand. It does not tell you much about the Swiss Guard or whether its uniform really was designed by Michelangelo. On the other hand, reporters turning up in Rome for the next papal election will need to keep it next to their laptops. Reese describes how a conclave is managed, both officially and unofficially, and is bang up to date with his summary of the latest state of play among possible candidates to succeed John Paul II.

More important still, he presents a detailed analysis of the 1996 constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, which will regulate how the conclave will be organized. He spells out the possible consequences of changes the present pope has made to the election procedure. John Paul II has introduced simple majority voting into the conclave. For the first dozen or so ballots the old rules apply -- a candidate has to obtain a two-thirds majority before he can be elected. After that period, however, and if a majority of the cardinal electors so wish it, the decision can be made by a simple majority vote.

The result of this could be devastating. Take the last election when, by all accounts, voting was split between two Italian cardinals, one a progressive, the other a renowned conservative, with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla coming up on the outside. Neither of the two Italian candidates was ever going to get a two-thirds majority. This being evident, the electors switched their preferences and chose the archbishop of Cracow.

Under the new dispensation it need not be like that, points out Reese. Once a candidate has gained a majority of the votes, all he and his supporters have to do is sit tight until, after the 12th ballot, there is a switch to election by simple majority. This will mean, he argues, that cardinals with extreme views have a chance of being elected, whereas in the past a compromise candidate would have been sought. Should that prognosis prove true, it could do untold damage to the church.

Reese thinks that untold damage has already been done. There is already a gulf between the church's central administration and its intellectual elite, an alienation between the Vatican bureaucracy and theologians which, quite simply, Catholicism cannot afford if it is to survive as a worldwide church into the 21st century. There are now even more theologians under suspicion, he comments, than during the modernist crisis at the beginning of this century. Being a political scientist, he makes constitutional proposals to overcome the disenchantment with papal government. He recommends, for instance, regular general councils and the election of the pope by the synod of bishops. He even has ideas about how to get rid of an unsatisfactory pope, though his procedure is so drawn out and so hedged throughout with checks and balances that I suspect the unpopular pontiff would die long before he could be deposed.

Surprisingly, while Reese flirts with excommunication for appearing to promote conciliarism, there is one bit of papal ideology Reese appears to accept uncritically. To describe, as he does, Peter as Rome's first bishop is to place the arrival of the institution of episcopacy in Rome almost a century before it can be found there. Along with Carl Bernstein he also appears to credit John Paul II with rather more influence over the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe than is really credible.

Excellent though this book may be, there are a number of minor irritations, perhaps especially noticeable to a European reviewer. It is not obvious, for instance, that because an American would find Vatican office hours inconvenient this is necessarily a failing. I don't really want to defend them, but such hours are not uncommon -- though less common than they were -- in government offices in Mediterranean countries.

And they are also quite common in European schools. He appears to be down on the European education system, basing his evidence upon an American priest in Rome (a ubiquitous personage in his pages, to be distinguished from "another American priest in Rome," and "an Italian-American priest in Rome," with only rare appearances by Europeans and others whose perspective might have been different). Yet it was this -- in his eyes -- overly traditional educational system that produced most of the dissenting theologians he enumerates.

Reese avoids as far as he can -- it is not always possible -- theological debate. That is not his task. He is most at ease dissecting papal dicasteries, balancing curial concerns and calculating the consequences of changes to the conclave. There are, moreover, some particularly informative pages on the qualities the cardinals will be looking for in a candidate when they next meet to choose a pope. He lists among these requirements a grasp of languages, media skills, health, age (preferably over 60 and under 70), nationality (it is better to come from a "neutral" country) and pastoral experience.

And he suggests, based on past performance, that they are likely to choose someone who differs in character from his predecessor. That, I suspect, will be particularly true of the conclave following the death or resignation of John Paul II. As Reese points out, the time when curial cardinals dominated the conclave is long gone. Now most cardinals are diocesan bishops. It seems to me highly unlikely that they will choose someone whose sympathies lie with the current centralizing tendency in the church, one that continues to strip bishops of authority over their dioceses.

Michael Walsh is the author of a biography of John Paul II and is working on a second edition of his bibliography of Vatican City. He is librarian of Heythrop College, University of London.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997