Conclave 2.0: Top 10 reasons why this version is different

This story appears in the Conclave 2013 feature series. View the full series.

by John L. Allen Jr.

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If we start the count in 1295, when Pope Boniface VIII first required cardinals to elect a pope in a sealed room, the looming 2013 edition will be the 75th conclave in the history of the Catholic church. At one level, therefore, it's possible to say that we've seen this show before, most recently eight years ago.

In many ways, the 2013 conclave will seem identical to those that have gone before: the same procession into the Sistine Chapel, the same black and white smoke, the same "Habemus Papam" moment when the new pope has been chosen. (Trivia point: By tradition, the announcement is made by the Proto-Deacon, meaning the senior cardinal in the order of deacons, who this time around is French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. He should be the guy who steps out onto the balcony to deliver the news -- unless, of course, he's elected himself.)

Despite the echoes of the past, there are several unique features about this conclave that alter the politics and, perhaps, suggest a longer and more difficult process. Herewith, the top 10 differences about the 2013 edition of the papal election.

1. Resignation, not death

The most obvious difference is that for the first time in 600 years, the cardinals will be electing a pope following a resignation rather than death. Procedurally, that doesn't change anything; it's the same sede vacante, the same rules for each round of balloting (known as a "scrutiny"), and so on. Psychologically, however, the contrast is enormous.

When any major world leader dies, let alone a pope, the air is usually filled with tributes and outpourings of grief and affection. Simple human decency implies not speaking ill of the dead, especially while the loss is still fresh. As a result, it's more difficult for cardinals to voice criticism of the papacy that just ended -- certainly in public, and at times even among themselves.

By separating the end of his papacy from the end of his life, Benedict XVI has spared the cardinals that pressure, allowing them to voice both at the strengths of this pontificate but also its weaknesses. That may help them arrive at a more balanced assessment, but it could also complicate the deliberations and make it more difficult to identify candidates.

The other major consequence is that there's no funeral Mass, meaning there's no platform for one of the cardinals to distinguish himself by delivering a memorable homily paying tribute to the deceased pope. Last time, many cardinals cited Joseph Ratzinger's performance at John Paul's funeral liturgy, and more broadly Ratzinger's leadership during the interregnum, as a decisive factor in consolidating support for him within the College of Cardinals.

2. No clear frontrunner

Despite what you may have read, to hear most cardinals tell it, the election of Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 was not a "done deal" when they entered the Sistine Chapel to begin voting. Cardinals insist they were still considering a variety of names, and several cardinals told me after the fact they had not made up their minds when the show started.

On the other hand, they all report that everyone knew Ratzinger would be a strong candidate, and their pre-conclave deliberations thus had an obvious focus. They knew they had to decide if they would support John Paul's doctrinal czar or not, because nobody with eyes to see could have missed the signs of the strong support Ratzinger enjoyed.

By consensus, there is no such clear point of reference, no slam-dunk front-runner, this time around. There are a number of candidates who seem plausible, but no one who towers over the rest. As a result, pre-conclave discussions may not have the same focus, and it may take longer for consensus to build.

3. The surprise factor

With his resignation, Benedict delivered a massive shock to the system, breaking with what had previously been a sort of quasi-dogmatic conviction in some quarters that while a pope technically could resign, they really shouldn't. As the saying used to go, "You can't renounce paternity."

(I spoke to one cardinal this week who was in the Feb. 11 consistory when Benedict made his historic announcement, and even though he understood the Latin perfectly well, he said his first reaction was, "This can't be happening.")

Having already received one huge surprise, perhaps the cardinals will be more disposed to another. For instance, they could look outside the College of Cardinals for the next pope. (The last time that happened was 1378, just 50 years before the last pope to resign.) In this climate, every wildcard scenario seems slightly more thinkable.

4. The veterans

In April 2005, there were only two cardinals who had ever participated in a conclave before, Ratzinger and William Baum of the United States, while this time there are 50 old hands.

That contrast could cut one of two ways: Either it will mean the cardinals will be better organized and more efficient because more of them know what it takes, or the deliberations will be more protracted and fractious because fewer cardinals are willing simply to play "follow the leader."

5. The time lapse

In 2005, 16 days passed between the death of John Paul II on April 2 and the opening of the conclave April 18. Of course, it was clear that John Paul was in decline much earlier, but given how many times he'd been through health scares before and somehow managed to solider on, many cardinals didn't start thinking about the transition in earnest until he actually died.

Most of them weren't in Rome when the pope died, either, so a few of those 16 days were eaten up by travel.

This time, however, Benedict's resignation announcement came Feb. 11, meaning the cardinals could begin thinking about what comes next from that point forward. Virtually all of them are planning to be in Rome for the pope's final audience on Feb. 27 and his farewell Feb. 28, so the whole college can hit the ground running immediately thereafter.

As of this writing, the precise date for the beginning of the conclave was still up in the air. The earliest realistic date, however, is probably March 9 or 10.

The bottom line is that the cardinals have a lot more time than in 2005 to prepare, to ponder various candidates, and to consult among themselves to see who appears to have support. Once again, that could mean a more streamlined process with the bugs worked out in advance; alternatively, it could mean a more protracted conclave, as various blocs have time to organize and the media has more time to dig into the backgrounds of the contenders, potentially raising questions marks that might give voters pause.

6. The scandal effect

The child sex abuse crisis was already set in cement as a defining issue for Americans by 2005, but it didn't really erupt in Europe until 2010. In the meantime, the Vatican has also been hit with a number of other embarrassing episodes, such as the Vatileaks scandal and persistent allegations of financial corruption.

In that context, a larger share of cardinals this time around is likely to be concerned that the new pope be perceived to have "clean hands."

In practice, this may produce a sort of burden, rather than benefit, of the doubt for any candidate publicly linked to some sort of scandal. In the hothouse atmosphere of the pre-conclave period, some cardinals are likely to feel they don't have the time to separate truth from falsehood and may conclude that the safest thing to do is to steer clear of anyone who seems even potentially tainted.

As one cardinal put it to me the other day with regard to a prominent fellow cardinal who's been identified in the Italian press with allegedly shady financial deals, "I don't know what actually happened, but right now it seems like too big a risk."

7. No benefit for the big dogs

The most important figures during a sede vacante are usually the dean of the College of Cardinals, who presides over their meetings and lead all the public functions, and the camerlengo, who has charge of day-to-day church affairs that can't wait for the next pope. When those positions are held by serious candidates for the papacy, it can offer a major boost to their prospects.

As mentioned, Ratzinger's prominence last time as dean was often cited as a major factor in his election.

This time, however, neither of the "big dogs" is truly considered a serious contender. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean, is 85, and possibly tainted by memories of his energetic defense of the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was later found guilty of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct. The camerlengo, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is faulted by many cardinals for most of the managerial breakdowns during Benedict's papacy.

As a result, these two roles don't carry a built-in political advantage this time, once again suggesting a more wide-open, and arguably more complicated, field of play.

8. Two-thirds vote

When John Paul II issued his rules for the conclave in 1996 with the document Universi dominici gregis, he included a provision allowing the cardinals to elect a pope by a simple majority rather than the traditional two-thirds majority if they were deadlocked after roughly thirty ballots, meaning seven days or so.

Procedurally, the conclave of 2005 never got anywhere close to invoking that provision, since they elected Benedict XVI in just four ballots. Psychologically, however, some cardinals said afterward that everyone knew that codicil was on the books, so that once Ratzinger's vote total crossed the 50 percent threshold, the outcome seemed all but inevitable.

In 2007, Benedict XVI issued an amendment to John Paul's document, eliminating the possibility of election by a simple majority. This time, the cardinals know that whoever's elected has to draw support from two-thirds of the college under any circumstances, which may mean they're less inclined to simply jump on a bandwagon when someone gets half the votes in a given round.

9. Spiritual exercises

By resigning just before the beginning of Lent, Benedict XVI may have wanted to set a penitential tone for the conclave, inviting the cardinals to spiritual sobriety and an examination of conscience. In practice, however, the timing also handed a huge platform to one possible successor: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who's preaching the Vatican's annual Lenten retreat.

Such a scenario is really possible only with a resigned pope. The Lenten spiritual exercises are conducted for the pope and the Roman Curia; had the pope died, he obviously wouldn't be taking part, and most senior officials of the curia lose their jobs in a sede vacante. The only way the exercises could go forward is for the pope still to be around, and for the prefects and presidents still to be on the books.

By most accounts, Ravasi is delivering a typically bravura performance. He's offering three reflections each day, drawing on his expertise as a biblical scholar and a man of deep erudition. One cardinal who's taking part in the exercises told me Wednesday that so far, he's found Ravasi "extremely impressive."

This veteran curial cardinal added, however, that he doesn't know much about Ravasi otherwise -- a somewhat striking statement, given that Ravasi has worked in the Vatican since 2007. It reflects Ravasi's unique profile as somebody who's in the Vatican but not really of it, more focused on engaging the worlds of art, science and culture than in building ecclesiastical empires.

That reputation might help Ravasi in the sense that he's anything but a schemer, and he certainly carries no public baggage related to any of the Vatican's recent scandals. However, some may wonder if he'd be another pope more interested in the life of the mind than actually running the church.

10. Social media

This will be the first conclave to unfold fully and truly in the age of social media, amid Twitter, Facebook and all the other new tools of communication out there. News and comment moves far faster, and through far more channels, than was the case even as recently as 2005.

Not every cardinal spends his spare updating his Facebook status and dispatching tweets, of course, but they and the people around them are certainly attentive to what's being said about the pope and the candidates for the papacy during this period. If once upon a time cardinals used to grouse that they didn't know enough about one another, this time around, they're like to complain about information overload.

Further, social media also creates whole new opportunities for others to inject themselves into the process -- if not the actual voting, certainly the run-up. Activists, pundits, people with theological, political, and even liturgical axes to grind are taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere with force, helping to set the tone and shape the content of public conversation.

Try as they might to insist they're not influenced by any of this, most cardinals in their honest moments will admit it's hard not to be, and that alone means they'll have more on their brains than usual this time around.

* * *

I've been posting daily sketches of a leading candidate to be the next pope, which I call "Papabile of the Day," on a special section of the NCR website devoted to the looming conclave. So far, I've covered Cardinals Angelo Scola of Milan, Peter Turkson of Ghana, Marc Ouellet of Canada, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, and Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines.

In the highly political world in which we live, it was probably inevitable that some readers would perceive a conspiracy behind either the choice of cardinals I've chosen to profile, the order in which I'm presenting them, or both. (My favorite is that I'm working through a hit list of guys I don't want to see as the next pope, planting the kiss of death on them by putting their names out too early. I'm tempted to say that whenever there's a conclave the whole world turns Italian, seeing Machiavellian plots under every rock.)

For the record, let me just say there's neither science nor cunning involved here. I'm simply picking cardinals who seem to be generating the most buzz, judging that by mentions in the press, how many questions I'm fielding about them from colleagues and the public, and what I pick up in private conversations with cardinals. (I should say that virtually every cardinal with whom I've spoken his week says it's too early to assess who might be in play, so even when they drop a name or two, it may not mean much right now.)

The sequence is even less calculated, if that's possible. So far I've simply gotten out of bed in Rome each morning, and in the couple of hours of calm I have before the day takes on a life of its own, I've asked myself which guy I can profile the quickest based upon whatever happened the day before -- whose name came up, what background the day's events helped me to develop, and so on.

In other words, there's less "there" there than you might suppose.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His email address is]

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