Theological Notebook: Another Alleged Insider View of the Conclave, and a Pinch of Conspiracy Theory
Just to be thorough in my now nine-month record-keeping of reporting on the papal conclave of 2005 that elected Benedict XVI, I also have to add this bit from John Allen's "The Word From Rome" column. This bit is notable for adding a bit of conspiracy theory flavour to standard reporting, although perhaps that emphasis is more the way the reporter heard his source than his alleged cardinal source explained it to him. After my respect for CNN's Christiane Amanpour plummeted during the conclave when I saw how immune she was from understanding--that in the face of clear correction and explanation of details she would simply revert back to casting her reporting in traditional politicized stereotypes--my hope for the accuracy of the general press in this kind of reporting is weak. In the article to which Allen refers, the "conspiracy" flavour is the result of the emphasis on the machinations of Opus Dei, the group made the sinister heart of the idiotic The Da Vinci Code, which many readers seem to have swallowed whole as an historical source of unprecedented accuracy. It's worth noting that Allen himself has just recently published a book on Opus Dei, summarized by himself here, and that despite being an employee of an explicitly liberal American Catholic newspaper, found nothing terribly sinister in the group.
Last week, an article published by the Brazilian paper O Globo made ripples around the world. Written by journalist Gerson Camarotti, the article is based on an interview with an anonymous Brazilian cardinal, who asserted that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger planned his own election as pope, with the assistance of the Roman Curia and Opus Dei.
Camarotti, who said he negotiated for eight months with this cardinal for the interview, and who told me he prepared for it by reading the Portuguese edition of my book Conclave, asked my reaction.
Here's what I said.
First, there's much that seems well-founded. For example, Camarotti names Cardinals Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia, Jorge Medina Estevez of Chile, and Christoph Schönborn of Austria as leading campaigners for Ratzinger, something many journalists had already reported. Further, Camarotti is correct that conservative cardinals met in Rome behind closed doors in the days leading up to the April conclave, putting together the Ratzinger offensive.
On the subject of Ratzinger's alleged role, however, things are less clear.
Direct testimony of a participant in the conclave, which is what Camarotti claims to have, must be taken seriously. Further, if Ratzinger had been running for pope, it would be difficult to imagine a more skillful campaign than his performance as Dean of the College of Cardinals from the death of John Paul II through the opening of the conclave.
Yet there's also powerful evidence suggesting that Ratzinger did not want the job, in part for reasons of age and health.
Each of the three most recent times his five-year appointment as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expired, in 1991, 1996, and 2001, Ratzinger asked John Paul for permission to retire. Each time the pope refused.
Just before the conclave opened, a senior official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told me Ratzinger had informed key aides that he hoped the new pope would grant him a few more months on the job, and then he would step down. He wanted to return to Bavaria, and resume writing on liturgy, ecclesiology, and other subjects.
I interviewed eight cardinals immediately after the conclave, and none had the impression Ratzinger had sought the job, though all said some cardinals (above all Schönborn) ran an aggressive campaign on his behalf.
Moreover, Benedict himself asserted he had not wanted the job in an audience with German pilgrims on Monday, April 25.
"As slowly the balloting showed me that, so to speak, the guillotine would fall on me, I got quite dizzy," he said. "I had thought I had done my life's work and could now hope for a peaceful end of my days. … So with deep conviction, I told the Lord: 'Don't do this to me! You have younger and better men, who can do this work with different verve and strength.'"
Of course, it's possible to dismiss this as a pro forma show of humility from a victor, especially someone who has conquered an office one is not supposed to seek.
Until and unless the identity of the Brazilian cardinal is revealed, or we know more about the extent to which he was part of the "inner circle," his impressions of Ratzinger's role will likely remain interesting but inconclusive.
As for Opus Dei, I suspect that ascribing Benedict's election to its machinations, whatever they may have been, overstates its political muscle. Only two of the 115 cardinals who elected Benedict were Opus Dei members, and neither is reported to have played a significant role: Cardinal Julian Herranz, a Spaniard who heads the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, Peru. Both men were probably Ratzinger voters, but that doesn't make them responsible for the outcome.
Lopez Trujillo, Medina, and Schönborn are not Opus Dei members. Camarotti says they're "close to Opus Dei," a vague formula, and more to the point, each is also close to a wide variety of other conservative movements, orders and groups.
I prescind from the question of whether Opus Dei actually "campaigned" for Ratzinger. The group's leadership insists that Opus Dei does not take corporate positions on church politics, but they can say that until they're blue in the face and some people won't buy it.
The bottom line, however, is that while many Opus Dei members were no doubt delighted with Benedict's triumph, to give them the credit (or blame, depending on one's point of view) overstates the case.