e-mail us


Allen’s Conclave views politics behind the pomp

By John L. Allen Jr.
Image Books, 223 pages, $12.95


Conclave offers something for everyone. Insiders who are knowledgeable about Vatican politics will relish the detail that John Allen, NCR Rome correspondent, delves into when describing the process and the personalities that will elect the next pope. Those who are baffled by the arcane traditions of Roman Catholicism will understand better how this ancient institution functions. The curious will have a context within which to understand why the cardinals choose a pope with a certain theological and political bent.

More than just a who’s who of cardinals, Allen explains why the papacy is important and what the pope does that situates him among the most influential world leaders. Though not as thorough as recent biographies of John Paul II, he intersperses a helpful summary of the pope’s reign, without making it into a hagiography. In this regard Allen provides comparisons particularly with other 20th-century popes. What the current pope stands for influences the deliberations that will lead to the selection of the next pope. Should the next pope mirror John Paul II? Many hope so, and some believe it is likely since John Paul II has appointed all but a handful of the cardinals eligible to vote (122 out of the 132).

However, predictions that the next pope will follow John Paul’s doctrinally conservative and socially justice-minded ways are speculation. Running the largest church in the world requires more than one man, no matter how dedicated and competent he may be (and John Paul is both), so the author fills in the picture of the papacy with his discussions of cardinals who serve in the curia and in sees around the world. They are the figures from which the next pope will be chosen.

Allen deftly explores the politics behind the pomp. After all, a conclave, for all of the mystery surrounding it, is in the end an election. And no election, secular or ecclesial, happens without its accompanying political jockeying. In this case, lobbying remains cloaked in subtleties, veiled ideologies and astute diplomacy. But, as Allen makes clear, cardinals find ways to inform their peers that they are interested in the position.

As if to put his final stamp on the church after one of the longest papacies in history, John Paul II issued an apostolic constitution in 1996, refining the rules by which his successor will be chosen. Changes include tightening of the secrecy surrounding the election and new, more comfortable lodging for the electors (restricted to cardinals under 80 years old), an accommodation for which the cardinals will be grateful, especially if the balloting lasts more than a few days. After three days of balloting, if no cardinal receives the two-thirds vote required for election, the new rules provide for a one-day pause to pray and reflect.

A second such pause occurs after seven more ballots without the required two-thirds, and a third pause is indicated if necessary. In this unlikely scenario (no 20th-century conclave took more than five days), the cardinals could decide to elect with a simple majority. Only if divisions between conservatives and progressives proved unbridgeable would this happen.

Allen concludes with a complete list of voting cardinals, each with an all-too-brief biography that is curiously selective in its details, as well as a list of the ones he considers genuine papabile (a potential pope). For these he provides a bit longer description, but each is more complex than he has space to detail. Written in accessible (and occasionally colloquial) prose, this book likely will be the standard text for observers of, and commentators on, the next papal election, provided that election happens within the next few years. If John Paul II remains for longer than two more years, and despite his obvious poor health, no one can be sure he will not, Allen will have to issue a revised edition with updated profiles of the leading candidates to succeed John Paul II. For, even in the ancient world of the Vatican, situations change and key players retire, die or fall out of favor. However, even if the key personalities change, the politics are unlikely to change and Allen’s analysis of the political situation is balanced, astute and thorough. This itself makes the book worthwhile.

This book is also important because the election of the next pope is important -- for the church and for the world. Allen informs his readers of the issues that loom large in this election. Will the next pope be John XXIV marking his papacy by the openness to the world that characterized John XXIII and Vatican II? Will he be John Paul III, following in the footsteps of the present pope who often criticizes the ways of the world as he travels to more places than any of his predecessors? Will he be Pius XIII, a consummate Vatican insider?

Perhaps, he will choose an entirely new name not chosen by any predecessor, signifying that he is beholden to no particular lineage or political agenda. If he is older, it may be because the cardinals do not think a potentially long papacy beneficial at this time. If he is Italian, it may be because they think it is time to return to previous practice. If he is from the Third World, it may be a sign that the church’s future depends largely upon the Third World. In any case, the Holy Spirit hovers over the conclave, and the Spirit moves where it wills. A careful observer of Vatican politics, Allen provides the Spirit with a useful terna (list) from which to choose Peter’s successor.

Chester Gillis is professor of theology and church history at Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002