Getting on the board
Let them explain.
A couple of years ago, Kate Childs Graham’s mother bought her this crazy board game, with tiny little cardinals and a Monopoly-like interface. The game is called “Vatican: Unlock the Secrets of How Men Become Pope.”
“She knew I was such a Catholic nerd,” Graham says. So she got this game, only she never had a good reason to play it.
When Benedict became the first pope to resign in 600 years, it seemed like a good reason.
There are no men playing on this night, so the newly elected pope is going to be a woman. Specifically, it is going to be a 20- or 30-something woman from a super-progressive movement, such as Call to Action or the Women’s Ordination Conference — an organization working for gender equality in the Catholic Church — both of which are represented here. Specifically, a Jewish rabbi would have a better chance of becoming pope than anyone at Graham’s house, but no matter, the chili is excellent, and there’s wine.
“Four Katherines in one room,” says Erin Hanna, after the introductions have been made. Four Katherines, two Erins and a Margaret. “Only at a pope party!”
It’s been a really busy week for Hanna and her co-worker Kate Conmy, also here at the party. “We’ve been figuring out,” Hanna says, “how to get pink smoke to Rome.”
Hanna is the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference. The pink smoke is meant to parallel the black smoke and white smoke piped out by the Vatican during the papal election process — and to remind the world that women cannot be priests, much less popes. However, pink smoke bombs cannot be FedExed to Italy, because they are flammable.
“It turns out you have to go to this special dangerous-goods FedEx,” Hanna explains. “The whole place is practically bubble-wrapped.”
It was going to take weeks and cost hundreds of dollars to get the pink smoke across the ocean, so now they just might have to do without.
Catholic and gay
“I was driving to work when I first heard the pope had resigned, and I literally swerved my car.” Before the pope party, Graham — short hair, glasses, 28 — talks a little about her faith.
She loves being Catholic. She was raised Catholic. She went to Catholic University. She and her partner, Ariana, were married by an ex-nun, and their toddler, Asher, was baptized in a Catholic church.
Still, it’s a struggle and a cognitive disconnect to love something so deeply that sometimes seems not to love her back. She was devastated when the bishops of Maryland — her adopted home state — banded together last fall to oppose same-sex marriage.
“We just have to keep doing the work of being the church that we want to be,” she says, on her activism.
Shortly after Benedict announced his resignation, she polled several friends in the progressive Catholic movement on what qualities they’d hope to see in a new pope. She turned these thoughts into an article for the National Catholic Reporter: They wanted someone who was willing to open Vatican decision making to new voices. Someone who was transparent. Someone who was open to dialogue on controversial issues such as sexuality and gender. A non-white man would be nice, to force European and North American Catholics to look beyond their positions of privilege.
“The next pope won’t impact my faith — the people I surround myself with impact my faith,” Graham says. “But he will impact my life.”
Whoever the new pope is, he will have been selected by an electorate that is 100 percent male and 100 percent wrinkled. If it seems sacrilegious to reduce the selection of the new head of the Catholic Church to a game that appears to be entirely out of stock on Amazon.com — well, keep in mind that Graham’s living room is the only conclave to which the players have been invited. This night is about disenfranchisement, faith and board games.
Politicking for points
“Vatican: Unlock the Secrets of How Men Become Pope” was designed in 2006 by a man named Stephen Haliczer, a emeritus professor of religion at Northern Illinois University. He seems to have a sense of humor: At one point in the game, a cardinal is kidnapped by a group of Muslim extremists; however, he manages to convert the kidnapper to Christianity and is awarded 30 points.
But for the most part, the game is all politicking. Players get extra points for being from the right corner of the world or for toeing the correct Catholic lines. Someone lands on a square that gives her 10 points for opposing gay marriage. “I will take the points,” she frowns. “But I am not happy about it.”
Another player loses points when she suggests that papal teachings should be open to discussion; a third loses points when she speaks up for the Virgin Mary’s inclusion as co-redeemer.
“Anything that wins support of liberals loses points,” one of the Katherines complains.
“Have you noticed that we’ve heard nothing about the poor in this game?” someone else says. “Nothing about economic justice?”
“Nothing about war and peace?”
After two hours, representing a six-day conclave, a new pope is selected. The new pope will be Anice Chenault, 36, a program manager for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She immediately declares that she will go by Pope Dorothy, after Dorothy Day, the social activist and anti-poverty champion who founded the Catholic Worker movement.
“I think I’ll be a pants-wearing pope,” she declares thoughtfully, as she’s not a big fan of dresses. Pro stem-cell research. Happy to welcome gay priests or female priests or any kind of priests who feel called to the priesthood. Her first order of business will be to deconstruct the Vatican. “And scatter the hierarchy,” she adds.
“Viva Pope Dorothy.” The women in the room lift their glasses and applaud. “Viva Pope Dorothy.”