Habemus papam, Part I: How did Ratzinger win?
Just how did this man win?
(This is the first of at least two posts on the recent papal election. Whereas this one looks at the election itself, the next will address the reaction to Ratzinger’s victory and the views of Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) himself, with particular attention on what he has called the “dictatorship of relativism”. In our media-saturated culture, the papal election is already a long-forgotten story, but it is important, in my view, to continue to think seriously about what happened, and why, and what it all means. The story may go away, after all, but the substance remains. And the substance of such a world-historical event is nothing if not important to us all.)
I picked Tettamanzi (Italy), but it was Ratzinger (Germany) who, after the smoke had cleared, emerged on that balcony last Tuesday as Pope Benedict XVI to give his Urbi et Orbi blessing as the new head of the Roman Catholic Church. Ratzinger was my second choice – at least in terms of prediction, if not personal preference. My reasoning was that Razinger, one of the heavy favourites (if not the favourite) going into the conclave, would not be able to secure the two-thirds super-majority needed for victory, despite strong initial support from loyalists; that an alliance of liberals, moderates, and reform-minded cardinals, including Martini (Italy), Antonielli (Italy), Kasper (Germany), and Danneels (Belgium), would resist Ratzinger’s candidacy; and that, barring the emergence of a leading anti-Ratzinger candidate, such as Martini, a compromise candidate would emerge as a “third way” between the two entrenched camps. I did not think that that “third way” candidate would be, say, Arinze (Nigeria), nor any of the Latin Americans, such as Hummes (Brazil) or Maradiaga (Honduras). On the contrary, as I argued in a recent post, I thought that the papacy would stay in Europe, likely back in Italy, and that Tettamanzi – or, as a long-shot, Policarpo (Portugal) – would end up being elected.
As it turned out, however, Ratzinger won quickly – and easily. From what I can pull together from various sources in the international press (most basing their own accounts on post-conclave interviews and press conferences with several of the cardinal-electors, or, better, on insider information gathered by well-connected Italian vaticanistas), Ratzinger was much more of a favourite going in to the conclave than most had imagined. As dean of the College of Cardinals and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was essentially John Paul’s #2. During John Paul’s long illness, stretching back quite a few years, he may even have been the unofficial #1. He was, therefore, John Paul’s natural successor, and, given both the length and breadth of John Paul’s papacy, not to mention the fact that John Paul had appointed most of the cardinal-electors himself, it makes sense, in the end, that those electors chose their own dean, the one papabile most likely to carry on in the spirit of John Paul’s papacy.
Although the conclave’s proceedings, not to mention the actual results of the four ballots (the first Monday afternoon, two Tuesday morning, the last Tuesday afternoon), remain shrouded in secrecy, reports in Italy’s La Repubblica indicate that both Ratzinger and Martini received around 40 votes on the first ballot – in fact, Martini may even have received more votes than Ratzinger on the first ballot. However, Ratzinger’s total may have been as high as 50. In addition, Sodano and various other Italian cardinals secured a few votes each, according to Italy’s Corriere della Serra, and, among the non-Europeans, Bergoglio (Argentina) is reported to have received a “handful” of votes. This much I more or less anticipated, though I expected Hummes or Maradiago to do at least fairly well as a Latin American alternative. What didn’t happen, however, was the expected showdown – and stalemate – between Ratzinger and, say, Martini, with a “third way” emerging after several ballots. On the contrary, reports indicate that Ratzinger’s support increased from ballot to ballot. No Latin American put up any real opposition, Tettamanzi never emerged as a compromise “moderate,” and Martini’s “liberal” supporters ended up switching over to Ratzinger by Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, according to La Repubblica, just ten or so cardinals were left in opposition to Ratzinger, and, needless to say, he was able to secure more than enough votes on the fourth ballot to win a decisive victory. Indeed, Ratzinger may have received as many as 107 votes on the fourth ballot, and likely no less than 90, well above the super-majority threshold of 77.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Ratzinger “arrived with a solid base of votes that staved off the emergence of any real challenger, culminating a juggernaut of a campaign months in the making”. Fair enough. What is interesting, however, is that John L. Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and perhaps America’s leading vaticanista, did not list Ratzinger among the top ten papabili in his invaluable (and highly recommended) 2002 book Conclave (revised 2004), although he was mentioned as one of “Fifteen to Watch”. Allen cited Ratzinger’s gravitas, fame (“the best-known cardinal in the world”), and closeness to John Paul II, but determined that “his candidacy would run afoul of the pendulum law” (i.e., always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope, as the saying goes). As we have seen, however, the cardinal-electors seem not to have been too concerned about “the pendulum law”. What they were looking for was continuity.
Prior to the conclave, Allen identified three key complex “voting issues” facing the cardinals: governance, secularity, and Islam. Ratzinger qualified as a leading candidate with respect to two of these issues: governance and security. First, as a long-standing official of the Vatican curia, the Church bureaucracy, Ratzinger will likely “govern” the Church in a way that John Paul, who was more concerned with travelling and evangelizing than with running the Church’s day-to-day operations, didn’t. Second, prior to his election as pope, Ratzinger seemed to believe that Western secularism was the key crisis facing the Church; in his homily delivered just hours before the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, he now famously declared war on secularism in all of its pernicious (in his view) manifestations (including Marxism, liberalism, collectivism, radical individualism, and agnosticism – all essentially aspects of “relativism”).
But what may have put Ratzinger over the top – swept into the papacy by a veritable landslide – was what Allen called “the funeral effect”. The incredible outpouring of devotion surrounding John Paul’s death (and funeral) must have set the tone for the conclave. With so much love for John Paul, with so many issues to consider, with so many different forces pushing and pulling on the Church, with so many capable papabili from so many different parts of the world, with no clear front-runner, and with the entire world watching via media (such as the internet) that no conclave had ever known, the cardinals-electors went with the closest papabile to John Paul, someone who would, for all intents and purposes, carry on what John Paul had begun. Ratzinger – now Benedict XVI – may not be a John Paul’s clone, as his German nemesis Kasper has suggested, but he was John Paul’s most obvious successor and, in the conclave, the easy pick. (Kasper, by the way, made Allen's top-ten list in Conclave.) For all the talk in the Western press about the “political” aspects of Ratzinger’s election – notably the often misrepresented conservative-liberal divide, with the apparent victory of conservative elements in the Church – Ratzinger may simply have been the right man in the right place at the right time. The election of a non-European, or of a reformer looking to take the Church in a new direction, will have to wait until at least the next papal election, whenever that may be.
Note: I have benefitted immensely from some fine reporting, analysis, and commentary on the papabili and the papal election in a number of major publications, including The New Republic and various other American, Canadian, British, and European newspapers and magazines, but especially from John L. Allen’s excellent reporting from Rome for NCR. For some of his work related to the content of this post, see here and here.