|The Sistine Chapel stoves|
Now that the conclave is fixed for Tuesday, there is a palpable ‘let’s go!’ atmosphere in Rome, strongly supported by the weather. Knowing the cardinals are ready to vote in just three days’ time comes as much as a relief as the sun emerging after days of rain.
As a symbol of this readiness, the Sistine Chapel chimney is up (habemos carbonarium! tweeted Greg Burke, the former Fox reporter who now works in the Secretariat of State). Journalists have been not so much “shown round” the Chapel as allowed to mill around in there chatting to each other.
At least, we could visit the lower part, before the ramp leading up to the raised platform constructed for the “scrutinies,” as the ballots are known. The main focus of interest in the lower part was the famous stoves installed for the conclave: one for burning ballots and the other for signalling, with black or white smoke, whether a pope has been elected.
The chances this year of the white smoke being white and the black smoke being black are greatly enhanced: they will use smoke bombs. But will the bells ring at the same time? They were supposed to in 2005, but there was an apparently interminable pause before they could be heard; I was giving a BBC interview at the time, overlooking the square, and was asked if, indeed, this was the white smoke. Because it didn’t seem very white, I stalled until finally the bells sounded and I could say “yes” with some certainty. Later I learned that the delay was the fault of the Cardinal Dean, who was supposed to have given the order for the bells to be rung. Because he had just been elected pope, he had other things on his mind.
As I waited to go into the chapel this afternoon, I jokily tweeted that I was still unsure whom to vote for. The question is, are the cardinals?
The Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told us today that yesterday’s vote on when to start the conclave was taken right at the start of the session, that Tuesday was the first and only proposal, and it was accepted “univocally,” in other words, by a slam-dunk majority. This decisiveness, he said later in the briefing, meant that there was no indication that this would be an unusually long conclave. The cardinals, after a week of discussion and deliberation, have all the information they need, and are ready to vote.
But a very short conclave is unlikely, because, by general consent among the vaticanisti (those journalists who cover the Vatican regularly), there are no obvious two or three candidates for the votes to cluster round. That’s not to say there aren’t outstanding candidates; but there aren’t "blocs" with obvious leaders.
To read the Italian press, of course, you’d not think that. There are very elaborate theories about the divisions among the curial and Italian cardinals, and various strategies to secure "their" candidate. La Repubblica, for example, thinks the battle is between reformers and counter-reformers – the reform in question being a root-and-branch cleanup of the curia – as well as between curiali, as the Vatican cardinals are called, and the stranieri, the non-Italians. After a hypothetical analysis of Baroque complexity, it comes up with Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan leading the field, backed by European cardinals (Madrid, Budapest, Paris) and various Italians; while an opposing group of curial cardinals look to secure Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Säo Paolo, who is well known to them and whom they trust. In other words – and I hope you’re keeping up here – the curiali are hoping to rally support around a foreigner they trust, in order to prevent a reformer being put in place by the non-Italians.
Well, maybe. The problem with the Italian papers is that they very obviously depend on sources close to the Curia. Sometimes what they print is amazingly well-sourced – it seems obvious, for example, that earlier this week La Stampa was benefiting from leaks from the general congregations, presumably from a translator rather than a cardinal (Father Lombardi said they would be glad to know who). But that can present a distorted picture, too. It can tell you how the curiali see things; but the curiali are a minority within a minority.
Few doubt that Cardinal Scola is an impressive papabile, who will surely attract votes. But this is an election with very strong candidates from North and South America: Cardinal Marc Ouellet – the French-Canadian head of the Congregation of Bishops with strong links to Latin America – as well as Cardinal Scherer of Säo Paolo, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York are all likely to attract votes in the first ballot. So, too, will Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila. And there will be others.
The breadth of the field, then, would seem to point to a long conclave. But that doesn’t follow. The first ballot is designed to show where support lies; the second and third ballots then cause more votes to flow to those candidates who are making a strong running. Only when two very strong candidates emerge, each unable to make the two-thirds majority, do standoffs occur. The election of Pope Paul VI in 1963 was a good example of stalemate and polarization between blocs of "liberals" and "conservatives." But even that was over in six ballots. This time – however much people are trying to come up with reformers v. anti-reformers – there is no comparable division. So it should be a fairly straightforward task of transferring votes to candidates who are making a strong running.
But that also makes the outcome notoriously hard to predict. In the end, we pundits have to make judgment calls, because "I have absolutely no idea" doesn’t play well on radio and TV and in the quotes newspapers call for. But really, beyond saying, "this is what’s on their mind," and "these are the candidates they are looking at," and "this is how it might go," I have absolutely no idea. And nor, I am confident, does anyone else – including the cardinals who are voting.
What we can say with confidence is that, in a conclave protected from pressure by outside interests, in which the cardinals have carefully deliberated on the issues facing the Church, in which there are no major factions or theological parties, which has a good spread of cardinals from across the global Catholic community, and where everyone who votes listens carefully to the promptings of his conscience, the chance of the Holy Spirit playing a big part in the choice of successor is enormously magnified.
And that should be a reason for rejoicing, whoever steps out onto the balcony next week.
Austen Ivereigh (@austeni on Twitter), who will be blogging for us daily from Rome on the papal transition, is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk). A former communications director to the Archbishop emeritus of Westminster (England), Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, he accompanied the cardinal to Rome in 2005 for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and election of Pope Benedict XVI. He is the author of "How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice" (OSV, $13.95).