There was a time when one could make a lot of money out of a conclave like the one that begins today in Rome. The ineffable Cesare Borgia -- model it is said, for Niccolo Machiavelli's Prince -- managed to buy 19 of the 21 cardinals who voted in the election of his father, Pope Alexander VI.
Pope Pius II spoke of the conspiracy to deny him the election by bribes handed out in the latrines, a deal that he said smelled of its place of origin. In fact, the buying and selling of votes in conclaves was routine until the end of the 18th century, especially by sovereign nations seeking to elect an ally: France, Austria, Spain, Portugal. Their money helped win the election of Clement XIV, who was expected to suppress the Jesuits and did so. Even in the early 19th century the Catholic writer Chateaubriand was sent to Rome by the restored French monarchy with 100,000 livres to influence a papal election.
(Priests Take Part In A Mass Last Sunday In St. Peter's Basilica)
The reason for this investment in the outcome of conclaves was that the papacy was a rich and potent European power. The new pope had at his disposal the coinage of corruption, money and jobs. He would appoint one of his nephews the "Cardinal Nephew," who was, among other things, the dispenser of patronage. It was taken for granted that the pope would make his relatives rich, some even as cardinals, even young men, such as Borgia, who had no taste for celibacy.
With the collapse of the Papal States in 1870, the reasons for such simony (buying and selling of church offices) disappeared. While it might make a good story if there were still traces of it, the truth is that there simply aren't any. The Vatican's endowment is less than that of a medium-size Catholic university, its annual income lower than that of a major American archdiocese. St. Peter's and the Vatican museum are loss leaders, barely breaking even on votive candles and admission prices. The Vatican is so poor that it had to take out a loan to pay for the second papal funeral in 1978. The only ones who might make money on the outcome of a conclave are gamblers who bet and win on a very long shot -- such as any American cardinal you might want to name.
Nor has a pope much in the way of patronage to reward those who supported him. Most priests from other countries are not eager to work in Rome in any event. Some powerful archbishops may populate a country with bishops who are their underlings, as did Cardinal Bernard Law, but that's not usually because they voted right in a conclave.
John Paul II probably owed his election to the intervention of Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna. Yet when it came time for Koenig to retire, the pope snubbed him and appointed a conservative theologian utterly unlike Koenig. (The new man turned out to be a child abuser and was forced out of the College of Cardinals. The next appointment was of a young aristocrat who belongs to the Dominican order and has made a mess out of Vienna.)
In Chicago politics we have a saying: If you're not loyal to your friends, who will you be loyal to? In Chicago, the mayor doesn't have much patronage to offer to his allies, but even so he has a lot more than the pope. What, then, are the trade-offs, the grease that oils the halyards of the bark of Peter?
I am not a fan of either the present method of selecting the spiritual head of a billion people or of the men who are getting ready to vote. Many of them (not all) are clueless careerists. Yet I do not doubt that when the doors of the Sistine Chapel close and they begin to vote, they will sincerely profess that they are trying to choose the best man for the "good" of the church -- however ill-advised their notions might be of who is "best" or what is "good."
Some peripheral irregularities are troubling -- such as the "tips" paid to lower- and mid-level curial bureaucrats. The late Cardinal John Cody greased his way to power by offering thousand-dollar bills with the injunction, "Say a mass for my mother."
There is the strong possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that the new technology of electronic eavesdropping might provide the Italian media with vote tallies at the end of each conclave "scrutiny," not necessarily through leaks from any of the electors. Should there be payoffs for this corruption, however, it won't be for the way a man voted. Because there are so few rewards available, the conclave will be about religion and religious leadership, at least as the electors define these subjects. Given the history of earlier conclaves, this somehow seems refreshing.
The writer, a priest, is on the staffs of the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. He is the author of "The Making of the Popes 1978" and is working on "The Making of the Pope 2005."