In Vatican conclave, progressive voices will be faint

March 10, 2013

On the day that the Holy See announced the date of the conclave from which the next pope will emerge, Alessia Nizzi stacked hard copies in the religious section of a large bookseller near the Vatican. The 32-year-old said that the most recent work of retired pope Benedict XVI was selling well, but not as briskly or consistently as those about the late Milan archbishop Carlo Maria Martini.

The wisdom and worldview of the late Jesuit progressive and ideological opposite of Benedict XVI, collected in works with titles such as “The Prophet” and “The Prophet of Dialogue,” remain widely popular with Catholics outside the Vatican walls. But inside the frescoed Sistine Chapel where the conclave to elect the next pope will begin on Tuesday, Martini is essentially forgotten and his ideas are foreign. None of the cardinals in the room come close to having his progressive credentials, and those with even a hint of his ideological orientation lack the numbers to exert much influence.

“There is no Martini,” said Robert Mickens, a Vatican expert for The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly.

But truth be told, there was hardly a Martini last time around either. The political center of gravity for the church had long shifted rightward, and the Italian giant of the College of Cardinals lost out, badly, to the conservative titan Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 election. As Benedict XVI, the church’s former doctrinal watchdog went on to create 66 of the total cardinal electors, the other 49 having been named by his ideological soul mate and predecessor, John Paul II. The resulting electorate does not seem amenable to any clandestinely progressive candidates.

The traditional fault line of the church’s ideological battles is the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. This may still be the case among Catholics in America and around the world, many of whom feel strongly that the church needs to follow the modernizing spirit of Vatican II into taboo territories such as birth control, an end to clergy celibacy and the ordination of women. But within the hierarchy, and especially within the conclave, such ideas will be non-starters. None of them have come in the more than 100 speeches by cardinals in pre-conclave meetings, according to official Vatican updates and unofficial leaks to Italian reporters.

Inside the conclave: How a pope is elected

Instead, reform this week has had more to do with an outsider-insider spectrum than anything left or right. The differences in the room are matters of emphasis on who wants a pastor and who wants a manager, who wants to protect the Roman Curia and who wants to clean house.

There remain some moderates who talk more about social justice and including the laity. It is a stretch to refer to a progressive wing in the conclave, but to the extent that there is a minority bloc that will have sway, it is believed that Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn is its leader, and a potential kingmaker.

Schoenborn is hardly Saul Alinsky and was himself a student of Ratzinger. But if not a pure progressive, Schoenborn has something of an advocate streak. In April 2010, Angelo Sodano, the former Vatican second in command and now the dean of the College of Cardinals, dismissed concerns about the global explosion of child abuse in the church as “petty gossip.” Soon after, Schoenborn, apparently believing to be talking off the record, told reporters that Sodano had “deeply wronged” abuse victims and accused him of blocking investigations into a cardinal suspected of molesting children. He also made supportive remarks about reform of the Curia and homosexuals in stable relationships and floated a reexamination of mandatory celibacy. The Vatican admonished him.

In a pre-conclave speech to colleagues, according to a report by La Stampa’s plugged in Vatican reporter, Schoenborn advocated reform of the Curia. Schoenborn could lead a bloc of more moderate-leaning cardinals, including, according to Mickens, Godfried Danneels of Brussels (himself accused of ineffectively handling priest sex abuse cases,) Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper of Germany, Andre Armand Vingt-Trois of France and Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil. Braz de Aviz is perhaps the only potential pope in the group, and he won fans among progressives when he expressed a more conciliatory tone towards American nuns who had been treated harshly by the Vatican.

The progressives aren’t many in number, but if the conclave is divided and a compromise candidate emerges, they could become critical.

That would be a change from the last time around. According to a purportedly secret diary of the 2005 conclave published in the Italian journal Limes, and apparently written by a participating cardinal, the college’s progressives voted for Martini on the first ballot as a test to gauge their support. It wasn’t deep. He received only nine votes compared with 47 for Ratzinger. The so-called progressive wing then threw its support to the closest challenger, Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but it was for naught.

But church officials and experts argued that unlike in 2005, when cardinals valued continuity with John Paul, the electors now are eager for a new direction, and Benedict’s resignation had made for an unusually fluid conclave. In that climate, the major chasm that has come to the surface is between those cardinals who want a pope with pastoral experience and those who want a strong manager.

There will be two more meetings between cardinals before they vote for the next pope.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who is in the pastor camp, said that as a leader of a diocese “people say to you, you know that department over there is a mess. I don’t have to say, ‘I’m going to stop doing my ministry and dedicate my life to that department.’ I say, ‘Fine, I’ll hire someone and put them in charge to clean up that department. So I can keep doing what I do best, which I hope is to be a spiritual pastor.’ So I’m just not all that concerned that the next pope has to be this administrator who is going to focus on the Roman Curia.”

Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York, disagreed. “He has to be a good administrator,” he said. “A manager comes in and says, ‘What are your 10 most important institutions, get me the last three audits of all of them and I’ll talk to you in a week.” He added: “That’s how you do it. I don’t care where you are.”

Asked whether there were ideological divides as well among the cardinals and whether he could identify a Martini figure in the conclave, Egan suggested that it would be a mistake to assume everyone’s positions were so transparent.

“This will shuffle out,” said Egan, who is older than 80 and cannot vote in the conclave. He said that in the important pre-conclave meetings where the alliances form, “those who have one view and another, that all just begins to come out.” He added that by the end the cardinals “will know — and they won’t tell you.”

Martini had little problem telling people where he stood.

In his 2001 pastoral letter essentially bidding farewell to his diocese, he reiterated his doubt about the wisdom of the church focusing on new conservative orders of hard-core believers instead of engaging the world through the traditional diocese. And Martini, whose dialogue with the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco was published in a book and widely translated, expressed gratitude for his encounters with non-believers. “I have learned so much,” he wrote, “including honesty, generosity, openness. For the paths of dialogue and friendship, for reciprocal enrichment and for growth in light and in truth, for fruits that grew on arid land, I give praise to my Lord.”

One of the books that Nizzi arranged in the Mondadori bookshop on Friday included Martini’s last interview, in which he said: “The church is tired, in the Europe of well-being and in America. Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous.”

Nizzi said the book was one of the chain’s best-selling religious books. But then she picked up another title with a glossy cover that she said was flying off the shelves. “The Secret Book of Pope Ratzinger,” it read. “Who’s behind the most resounding resignation in history?”

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