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March 13th 2013 print

Peter Wales

The Papal Punter’s Form Guide

The Holy Spirit has some work to do in guiding the College of Cardinals as it selects the next Pontiff. Here is an introduction to the leading candidates' virtues and shortcomings


One of the most interesting phenomena of the last weeks has been the enthusiasm with which media pundits who have previously expressed the opinion that the Church is dying and irrelevant have expounded upon the importance of the right person being elected to be the new Pope. Like liberal nuns and other anti-Catholics, most of these media persons (I decline to call them personalities) believe the world would be a much better place if someone was elected who had the same opinions they do.


Alas for them, it is likely, as Philippa Martyr has pointed out in her usual delightful style, that the next Pope will be a Catholic. Which means no gay marriage, no women priests, no abortions.

Going to Mass, trusting in Jesus, reading the Bible and the whole religious thing will still be a large part of what the Church is about. It might be interesting to spend some time talking about whether it is possible to identify exactly where any culture is less than healthy, by noting at which points its demands conflict with the teaching and practice of the Church. In our case, I suspect, in the areas of gender, sexuality, and ‘self-realisation.’ But instead I’ll stick with wondering who the next Pope might be.

We start with a potential field of all unmarried baptised adult male Catholics. Betting website paddypower.com offers odds of 666 to 1 on Richard Dawkins. You can also bet on Fr. Ted at 1,000 to 1 if you are absolutely determined to lose your money.

It is possible that someone who is not a cardinal might be elected, but the last time this happened was in 1378, and the result was not inspiring. That narrows the field from about 100 million to 120.

Since the purpose of the conclave is to listen to the Holy Spirit, who speaks to the cardinals not only in Scripture and prayer, but also through each man’s learning, culture and experience, as well as the voice of the other cardinals, attempting to pick the new Pope means trying, in advance of the cardinals, to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying, and then, considering the personality and background of each of the cardinals and how they work together as a group, to gauge how clearly they will recognise the Spirit’s leading. Papal prediction is therefore possibly the most arrogant exercise in which it is possible for any human being to engage.

Let’s get on with it.

Firstly, the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. This means he needs to speak Italian. Realistically, it means he needs to be Italian, or to have worked or studied in Rome. On the other hand, the Catholic Church is catholic, “kata holos” – according to the whole. That is, universal. The Pope is a father in Christ to the whole Church. This means he needs to have a demonstrated awareness of and interest in issues beyond Rome, and beyond his own diocese.

Preferably, he will have experience as a parish priest and as a diocesan bishop. He must have the trust of the Roma Curia, which means they must know him, and have confidence in his administrative abilities.  Cardinal Antonio Tagle of Manila is virtually unknown in Rome; it is this, not his relative youth, which makes his election unlikely.

He must be academically credible. If he hasn’t served as a teacher at a university or seminary, he must at least have a higher degree. This rules out a number of otherwise outstanding figures such as Cardinal Anthony Okogie.

He also needs to be indisputably orthodox and collegial. That means acting in an honest and respectful way towards the other bishops. For this reason, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is out.

Although listed by the bookies as a favourite, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson is also out, not because of any lack of orthodoxy or collegiality, or of energy and courage, for that matter, but because of a perception (probably unfair) that he lacks discipline in his public statements. Another issue from an economic perspective is that Cardinal Turkson appears uncritically to have adopted the failed socialist principles of his native Ghana. I like and respect him, but would be alarmed at his election.

Some liberals have expressed the view that an African Pope would be, like, really groovy. There are only two other potential African candidates: Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze and Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea. Cardinal Arinze would be a liberal’s worst nightmare. He is charismatic, highly-educated, well-spoken, committed to the Gospel, and thoroughly conservative.

The only reason I hesitate to name him as my pick is his age. At the age of 80, he would be the oldest man ever to have been elected. Also, at 80, he is not able to participate in the conclave. But he still looks to have at least six more good years in him. The cardinals may believe it is important to stand with the persecuted Church, especially the Church in Africa. A vote for Arinze would signal this (as does the planned canonisation of the Martyrs of Otranto). Cardinal Arinze meets all the other requirements, and has the faithfulness, humility and leadership skills to lead the Church through the next decade.

Cardinal Sarah is prayerful, courageous, indisputably orthodox, and is well-known and liked in Rome. He is Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. Evangelism is a high priority, and proven skills in this area will weigh heavily. At sixty-seven he is close to the median age of newly elected popes. He is probably Africa’s strongest candidate.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a man with strong pastoral and administrative skills, as well as a solid academic background. He lived and taught in Rome for seven years. He is perceived to have taken a strong stand on the issue of child abuse. He is unquestionably orthodox, and has a commitment to mission. Like Cardinal Arinze, he is charismatic, and speaks clearly on matters of life and faith. At sixty-three he is at the median age at which popes have been elected. However, and it is a big however, he is an American. That would not stop the cardinals electing him if they truly believed this to be the will of God. But God might have trouble convincing them.

Another possibility is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Archbishop of Quebec and currently Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. He is not regarded as exciting, but exciting is not amongst the job and person specifications for Pope. He is highly intelligent, compassionate, and an experienced administrator. He knows how the Curia works, and in turn, is known and trusted by the Curia. At least as importantly, he is a man with a reputation for prayerfulness and a real love of God. This matters; it was probably the single most important factor in the election of Karol Wojtyla.

As a young priest Cardinal Ouellet worked as a missionary in Columbia. He speaks several languages fluently, and is perhaps one of the most “global” of all candidates. On the other hand, despite his commitment to mission, he did not succeed in reversing the downturn in attendance at Mass during his time in Quebec. That may count against him.

Cardinal Odilo Scherer is Archbishop of Sao Paulo, one of the largest dioceses in the world in terms of Catholic population. He has studied and worked in Rome, where he is highly regarded, both as an intellectual and as an administrator. He is a member of the Congregation for the Clergy, and his deep commitment to evangelism led to his appointment as one of the first members of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation. Although there are other impressive cardinals from South America, Cardinal Scherer is the only one sufficiently well-known in Rome to have the confidence of the Curia.

Then there are the Italians. There may be a feeling amongst the Cardinals that it is time for another Italian Pope. It is worth repeating that the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. To have three non-Italian popes in a row might not seem appropriate, any more than it would be appropriate to have three non-Australians in a row appointed Archbishops of Sydney.

Some online gambling sites have Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, formerly Archbishop of Genoa, and now Cardinal Secretary of State and Camerlengo, on the shortest odds of any of the Italian cardinals. This is a mistake. There is no doubting Cardinal Bertone’s intelligence, energy and ability. But there have been blunders during his time as Secretary of State, such as the failure to check the background and opinions of anti-Semitic SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson prior to the lifting of his ex-communication.

That lapse exposed Pope Benedict to widespread criticism. In addition, Cardinal Bertone is reputed to have an authoritarian management style which has alienated some of the Vatican staff. That is only a rumour, but in July, 2012, Pope Benedict took the unusual step of writing Cardinal Bertone an open letter which called him “Dear brother” and included this sentence: “Having noted with sorrow the unjust criticisms that have been directed against you, I wish to reiterate the expression of my personal confidence.”

The criticisms may well have been unjust, but the very fact that Pope Benedict responded to them publicly is a confirmation that they reflect widespread feelings and concerns amongst some of the Curia.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi is a Biblical scholar and archaeologist. He is also President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, and President of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. He has a strong interest in dialogue with non-believers and people of other faiths, and has reaffirmed the importance of clear, challenging preaching. He led the Vatican Lenten retreat this year, which means he will be in the minds of many of the cardinals as they enter the conclave. However, he has little or no experience as a parish priest or diocesan bishop.

In November, 2012, Cardinal Ravasi appeared to suggest that Israeli action to stop Hamas terrorism was like Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. I wrote to him suggesting such a comparison was frankly idiotic, given Israel’s unprecedented concern for Palestinian civilians, even to the point of risking the safety of its own soldiers, in contrast with constant and deliberate Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli schools, bus passengers, homes and shopping centres. I received a disingenuous response from the Pontifical Council for Culture which claimed that cardinal was deeply concerned about all victims of violence.

Well, maybe. But he has never said anything about constant violence directed at Israelis, nothing at the time of murder of the Fogel family, nothing about the persecution of Jews throughout the Middle East, and the appropriation of their homes and businesses, nothing about the burning of churches in Indonesia or Pakistan or the murder of Coptic Christians in Egypt, nothing about the rape and mass murder of Christians in Sudan, or the horror inflicted by Boko Haram upon non-Muslims in Nigeria. But when Israel defends itself, well by golly, they are baby killers and public comment must be made.

Cardinal Ravasi is reportedly a very pleasant man, but this is a huge moral blind spot. It may make Cardinal Ravasi a troubling candidate for African cardinals. It certainly makes him a troubling candidate for me.

Except for the fact he has never been a parish priest, Cardinal Angelo Scola is perhaps the archetypal papal candidate. He is exceptionally intellectually gifted, a hard-working and caring pastor, and a capable administrator. As Archbishop of Milan he has shown more than accustomed openness, making time to see anyone who wanted to see him for any reason. He is not perceived to have been tainted by any of the accusations of immorality or procedural failings the media (again, probably unfairly) has made about the Roman Curia. He has a reputation for gentleness, but also for being strong enough for deal fairly and effectively with moral and doctrinal challenges.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco is Archbishop of Genoa and President of the Italian Episcopal Conference. He is considered to be a genuinely prayerful, a man of faith. Like Cardinal Scola, he is exceptionally intelligent and a capable academic. He has also demonstrated both pastoral and administrative ability. He gained some notoriety in 2011 when he publicly rebuked some of Italy’s political leaders, including then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for “behaviour that not only goes against public decorum, but is intrinsically sad and hollow.”

Alarmingly, he is also said that everyone has a right to a job. Alarmingly because if a man has a right to a job, then someone else has an obligation to give him one. Who should that be? I would prefer to say that everyone has the right to work. But this is probably being picky; Cardinal Bagnasco is no more economically illiterate than any other realistic candidate. Except Cardinal George Pell, and Cardinal Pell is not really realistic. Well, not very.

There are two factors that make Bagnasco more likely than Scola. One is that the media has been touting Scola as the “leading candidate.” The second is that although he will not be elected, Cardinal Bertone is an influential figure, and any votes influenced by him will go to Bagnasco rather than Scola.

If pressed, I would give the leading contenders in the following order:

1.       Angelo Bagnasco

2.      Angelo Scola

3.      Odilo Scherer

4.      Robert Sarah

I am up to 2,200 words already, and Quadrant Online’s infamously dyspeptic editor will be thinking these thoughts have run far too long (editor’s note: not at all; feel free to continue) . But at the risk of incurring his displeasure, I must write a little more — just a leeetle drop, Mr Bumble — about three long-shot candidates.

I can deal with Cardinals Carlo Caffarra and Mauro Piacenza together. Cardinal Piacenza has worked as a parish priest, he has a reputation for humility, is a respected academic and a capable communicator with a commitment to effective evangelism. He knows Rome and the curial system like few others. He has a solid reputation for integrity and is an outstanding administrator. Cardinal Caffarra is Archbishop of Bologna. He has never been a parish priest, but he has been an effective and caring diocesan bishop. He is a clear and convincing writer and speaker. Thoroughly orthodox and with a mind like a steel trap, he also has a reputation as a person of faith and humility. I would be pleased and unsurprised to see either of these two offering the next Urbi et Orbi.

And then there is George Pell. Cardinal Pell seems to me to be the most clear-thinking of any of the possible candidates on economics and general political issues. That is to say, he is politically conservative and in favour of free markets. He is highly regarded among the other Cardinals as an academic and as a communicator of the faith. He has experience as a parish priest and a diocesan bishop, and is known to be both a compassionate pastor and an effective administrator. He is trusted by the Curia. He is also the only candidate I have met and spoken with.

I met him at a conference in Sydney about eight years ago. Although he had no idea who I was, he was open, polite and generous with his time. While talking to me he never once looked around to see if there was anyone more interesting or more important to talk to. Once he did know who I was (at that time I was Dean of The Murray), we talked about theological issues affecting the Anglican Communion, the embarrassing anti-Catholicism of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, and the prospects (dismal) of re-union between Canterbury and Rome. I liked him very much, but I don’t get a vote.

A long shot? Certainly. But at 80-to-1 on paddypower.com, Cardinal Pell is jolly good value.

Peter Wales is a former Anglican clergyman who now runs an IT consultancy business on Kangaroo Island in South Australia