Three cardinals emphasize collegiality
Ratzinger said to favor free speech before conclave
By John L. Allen Jr.
Under the best of circumstances it can be difficult for journalists to make contact with cardinals, and given this week’s press blackout, it is especially tricky. One danger, therefore, is that when we succeed in getting through even to a couple of the electors, we’re tempted to elevate what they tell us into a “trend,” when it may represent nothing more than what two guys happen to think.
With that caveat, within the last 72 hours, I’ve had the opportunity to speak on background with three cardinals: one European, one African, and one North American. What they’re saying is of interest in terms of what these three electors are thinking; whether their thoughts illustrate broader currents within the College of Cardinals, and how decisive they will be in the election of the next pope, remains to be seen.
One point upon which all three cardinals agreed is that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German doctrinal czar who is the dean of the College of Cardinals, has taken a bum rap in the Italian papers related to the media blackout. It was not Ratzinger who imposed the policy, they said, and in fact he resisted calls for a formal ban, saying during the General Congregation meeting that freedom of speech is a human right. Hence, instead of an explicit ban, the cardinals have a sort of gentleman’s agreement, along with an invitation to the press to leave them alone.
Beyond that, each of the three cardinals spoke on the issue of collegiality – i.e., the balance of power between the papacy and the Vatican on the one hand, and the local bishops and bishops’ conferences on the other.
“John Paul in his heart was a very collegial pope,” the European said. “For example, he made Jan Schotte, the secretary of the synod, a cardinal. It had never happened before, and he said it was to stress the importance of the synod.”
Yet, this cardinal said, the synod never lived up to its promise.
“There is no culture of debate,” he said. This cardinal said that it doesn’t really matter if the synod has formal deliberative authority; if there’s real debate leading to a genuine consensus, he said, the pope would certainly go along with it.
“The challenge is to balance a strong papacy with a strong episcopacy,” he said.
Why didn’t that happen under John Paul II?
In part, this cardinal said, because the pope was so focused ad extra that he never really thought much about internal church affairs. “It just wasn’t his cup of tea,” he said.
The African cardinal said much the same thing.
“In recent years, the wheels have been coming loose in the curia,” he said. “The notion of collegiality needs to be more applied in the life of the church.”
This cardinal said that in evaluating papal candidates, he will be asking, “Who would be best able” to reform the curia. “Does he see the problem? Or are we seeing a problem where he sees a virtue?”
The African cardinal said one special form of the collegiality debate from his regional point of view pivots on “inculturation,” meaning allowing the faith to be expressed in distinctively African idioms and patterns. On this front, by the way, he expressed doubt that Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who heads the Congregation for Divine Worship, would be the solution.
“He’s been in Rome a long time,” the cardinal said. “I’m not sure how well he actually knows the current African reality.”
Further, the African cardinal said that he was conscious that he’s about to elect not just a leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, but a man who has to be able to reach out to others – to Muslims, to Jews, to secularity.
The North American said he is especially concerned about the issue of secularity, especially in Europe.
“I look at the church in northern Europe, and it seems like a mess,” he said. “Aside from pockets of life, especially among the young, it doesn’t look like we’ve succeeded in getting through to secularized culture. We’ve got to find someone who can dialogue with secularity, because in fits and starts it’s becoming the culture of the world.”
The European cardinal had a simple solution.
“A new St. Francis would change Europe in a few years,” he said. “We need a church that’s transparent, evangelical, close to the gospel. Europeans are actually very open to a ‘pure’ Christ, without power, without riches. A Christ who is a winner will not convert Europe, but a Christ who is a loser has a chance.”
I asked each of these cardinals if they felt “issues” in the conventional sense – collegiality, secularity, Islam, or the like – would actually drive the election of the next pope.
“I hope so,” the European said. “But I am not sure. I hope we can focus on this sort of thing, and not personal questions about the candidates.”
The African, who spoke on Saturday, April 9, confessed that he really had no idea how it would work.
“I’m hoping to have some of these conversations, but I don’t really know where or how yet,” he said. “I guess I’m sort of waiting for someone to take the initiative.”
This cardinal said he would like to talk to the Latin American cardinals, although he was worried about language. “The center of gravity in the Catholic Church has shifted to the southern hemisphere,” he said.
This cardinal also said he worried that too many cardinals don’t know one another well, and that he had actually hoped the cardinals might be able to move into the Domus Santa Marta a few days early in order to build a sense of community. For logistical reasons, he said, it looked like that would be impossible.
The North American, speaking on Sunday, April 10, said more or less the same thing.
“So far, I really haven’t been part of any substantive conversations,” he said. “I’m hoping that something will begin to take shape in the next few days. Like most everybody else, I’ve never been through this before, and I’m not quite sure how it works.”
Whether collegiality, the need for a simple evangelical style, or inculturation emerge as key themes in the election of the next pope – indeed, when and how any themes will emerge – remains to be seen. At least, however, we have some sense of what three electors are thinking about on the eve of their momentous choice.
Finally, the African cardinal said his hunch is that his fellow electors will want a conclave that is neither too short nor too long. Too short, he said, and it looks like a rush to judgment; too long, and it could seem that the cardinals are divided, and that the pope has been elected by a faction rather than a consensus.
So what does that mean?
“Three to four, maybe five days,” he said.
We shall see.