Debunking 'conventional' conclave wisdom

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

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Now that the papacy of Benedict XVI is over and the sede vacante has begun, the period before the white smoke rises over the Sistine Chapel will be filled with commentary and speculation about the looming conclave, much of it based on time-honored conventional wisdom about how these things work.

Here are three common bromides you're likely to hear over and over again in coming days:

"He who enters as pope exits as a cardinal." The idea is that too much attention before the fact can hurt more than it helps, and that the actual results of conclaves are always a surprise compared to what people had expected.

"You follow a fat pope with a thin one." The gist is that after a particular style has had its day for a while, cardinals will be in the mood for something different, so they'll elect a pope who contrasts with the previous one.

"This is the most secretive process in the world." This assertion usually comes bundled with explanations of the etymology of the word "conclave," from two Latin terms meaning "with a key," as well as obligatory references to the oaths cardinals are required to take.

Like all conventional wisdom, these sound bites are comfortable, familiar, and they seem like the result of accumulated experience. Also like most conventional wisdom, however, half the time they're bunk.

Let's take each in turn.

As far as the outcome of conclaves always being a surprise, it just ain't so. The last six conclaves illustrate the point:

  • In 1939, no one entered the conclave more obviously a pope than Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, a former nuncio to Germany and, since 1930, both the Secretary of State and the camerlengo. He was the obvious choice, and indeed he was elected in only three ballots, the shortest conclave of the 20th century.
  • In 1958, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli of Venice was more of a stunner, though he made many short lists in the run-up to the event.
  • In 1963, the overwhelming favorite was Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan, another veteran of the Secretariat of State. Many observers saw Montini as the only Italian cardinal in a position to finish the work of the Second Vatican Council that John XXIII had started, and in the end, he prevailed.
  • Prior to the first conclave of 1978, the election of Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was correctly anticipated by Time, L'Espresso and Le Monde, among others, and he was elected in just four ballots.
  • The second conclave of 1978 produced the closest thing to a genuine surprise in John Paul II, the first non-Italian in 500 years. Yet even then, not everyone was blindsided. The weekly Blanco y Negro in Barcelona published an analysis by well-known Vatican analyst José Luis Martin Descalzo just before the conclave. He quoted Cardinal Antonio Samorè predicting the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow.
  • In the run-up to the conclave of 2005, everyone agreed that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the frontrunner and that the conclave would only become interesting if his candidacy stalled. It didn't, and he was elected as Benedict XVI in just four ballots.

The late Cardinal Franz König of Vienna once me told that far from being the kiss of death, some sort of media prominence is almost a prerequisite.

"If a name never appears in the papers or on TV or radio, then he may be a good bishop, a good cardinal, but he is probably nothing special," he said. "But when you feel, look here, his name turns up -- why? Why is he being mentioned?"

Moral of the story: Sometimes a guy goes into a conclave as pope and comes out as one, too.

As far as the fat pope/thin pope theory goes, it's either so obviously true as to be virtually a tautology or, in its stronger form, it's also only half-right.

The banal version of the fat pope/thin pope wisdom is that every pope is different in some way from the man he follows. Of course no two popes, like no two snowflakes, are identical. If that's all the saying means, then it's factually true but unhelpful as a guide to conclave preferences.

If taken to mean, however, that the cardinals always want to elect someone who will be a break from the policies and approach of the previous papacy, it's just flat false. The cardinals elected Montini in 1963 not to repeal the council that John XXIII had launched, but to protect it. Likewise, they elected Benedict XVI not as a break with the policies of John Paul II, but to set them into cement.

If the fat pope/thin pope idea really worked, it's hard to imagine that the cardinals in 2005 would have chosen the intellectual architect of John Paul's papacy to replace him. In truth, the overwhelming priority in that conclave wasn't new direction but continuity.

Finally, the alleged secrecy of the conclave is often more honored in the breach than the observance.

Certainly before the cardinals actually file into the Sistine Chapel, secrecy is not the order of the day. Before they go into lockdown, many of them give interviews, and they often subtly drop hints about what kind of pope they want. If you "speak cardinal," you can generally figure out what's being said.

For instance, a cardinal voicing a desire for a "pastoral" pope often means no career bureaucrats or Vatican officials. Depending on context, it can also mean a moderate rather than a hard-liner. Saying you want a "strong" pope usually means either a business manager or a doctrinal conservative.

During the conclave itself, the cardinals are cut off from the outside world, perhaps the only window of true secrecy.

Although their oaths bind the cardinals never to talk about what happened once they leave, cardinals seem to have varying interpretations of what that means. Many are willing to talk in general terms about why they chose the pope they did. Others will be more specific, talking about how the process unfolded and what seemed to crystallize the conclusion. Still others go even farther, at least on background.

In general, it doesn't take long before round-by-round vote totals are reconstructed, other serious candidates are identified, and the leading "kingmakers" who influenced the process are known. Last time, an alleged "secret diary" kept by one cardinal appeared in the Italian press, and though it's hard to know how authentic it was, its main claims tracked with what reporters collected from other sources.

The only meaningful sense in which a conclave can be described as "secret" is that what goes on inside the Sistine Chapel, as well as the Casa Santa Marta where the cardinals stay, isn't streamed live on the Web. Other than that, sooner or later, pretty much everything leaks out.

Of course, nothing I've outlined here will stop these three bits of conventional wisdom from being recycled ad nauseam over the next week or so. As always, the rule of thumb about pre-conclave chatter is caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware.

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

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