Holy What?!
How the papal conclave works.


On TV these days, you hear Catholic after Catholic putting “trust” in the choice of the “Holy Spirit” as to which cardinal will become the next pope. What on earth are they talking about?

Jesus Christ said that He Himself was one with the Father–that is, the Lord and Creator of all things–and asserted thereby that we ought not to think of God as a cold, solitary, lonely Nous or Mind, in the manner of the Greeks, but rather as at least a Communion of Two, Father and Son who are one, one in will, one in mind, one in substance. More than that, He said that the Father would send His Spirit, to be with the Church (the people formed by their loyalty to Christ) forever, and that Father, Son, and Spirit are one. God is the Communion of Three Persons.

This is a flat arithmetical contradiction. How can three be one? Or one, three?

Nonetheless, it is what we believe Jesus said. And meant.

For us, it is as though we ought to imagine that the most divine realities in our lives are our moments of closest communion, with our spouses (our best friends), our children, our larger families, and our friends and associates (our comrades in war, for instance, or in team sports; or our best buddies and confidants). God is more like a communion of persons, than like a pure sunburst of insight or an abstract idea. Of course, no one sees God. None of us has an adequate idea. But this, at least, is how Jesus told Christians to approach God: “Where you are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of you.” Communion of persons. Silent. Joined in one will, in mutual love, deeper than image or thought.

Men@Work, Too

This is all pretty abstract. So, as Americans, let’s get down to the practicalities as soon as possible. In Rome last week, I told one of my friends, “I will be perfectly satisfied with whichever cardinal the Holy Spirit picks out. I certainly never thought of Wojtyla in 1978,” I concluded, I thought triumphantly.

My friend brought me up short. “The Holy Spirit will do nothing except through human agency and human work. So somebody better get busy and start organizing things.” We were a little worried about the lack of any signs that this was, at that point, being done.

I later talked to several cardinals, old friends from the long-ago past (in my days in the seminary decades ago, I crossed paths with a few of them, and met others during my days as a journalist at Vatican II). One of them mentioned casually–we both avoided any politicking or even discussions of who is doing what–that he had already attended lunch that day with seven or eight cardinals, and would have dinner with seven or eight others, and it was like this every day. He hoped to continue and meet with a lot of them before the conclave.

He didn’t say, but I can imagine that all of these conversationalists are watching the others very closely at these meals, and in their general meetings; and that those 20 or so among them who sense some probability of being named themselves are allowing themselves to be as well-spoken and thoughtful as their gifts permit, putting their best and most prudent (which may mean bold and daring) foot forward, as never before. Now is the time to act like a pope; more exactly, to be like a pope. If that is what others are to see, someone must let it shine forth.

Now there is plenty of room for “chance” and contingency to operate in these casual meetings. Who did not get a good night’s sleep, has an upset stomach, finds a blood vessel rupturing just at this crucial time in their lives (as Cardinal Mahoney, poor man, did)? Who happens to meet whom, just as this or that subject (right up his alley) comes down the pipe at him like a perfect strike? Who manages to irritate key people just at the wrong moment?

General Providence

General Patton at the Battle of the Bulge called in his chaplain, a ruddy Irish Catholic monsignor, and requested a prayer for the dratted rain to stop coming down in torrents, so he could move his dratted tanks and kill some dratted Germans. Sheepishly, the monsignor explained that he didn’t have a prayer for killing. The general ordered him to sit down.

I won’t report the whole conversation, but it was a classic. The key moment came when Patton explained that even when an army was perfectly prepared, and even when it had won every battle in which it had engaged, so that its morale was razor-sharp, still, there were things that no army and no general could control, things which make all the difference between victory and defeat, absolutely crucial things–like two weeks of driving rain. “That’s what we call Providence, Father. And that’s your department. And I order you to produce a prayer, by tomorrow. In my hands. Right here.”

The general got his prayer, all right, and liked it so much he had hundreds of thousands of copies printed on little cards for each soldier. And he got a cessation of the rain, and open skies, and great weather for his kind of warfare. And he broke the siege.

Meanwhile, to jump back to the way God can work at a conclave: In between details like the weather, personal illness, chance encounters, and accidental perceptions thrown off by odd angles in the way people meet–not to mention unsummoned thoughts and images and intimations–there are a host of ways in which the Divine Artist of events can set the stage and arrange actions, without in the least interfering in the natural laws of human nature and history, or even in the perfect freedom of will of those who make decisions.

In fact, so much of our lives are outside of anybody’s powers of decision, or even of complete knowledge. The Holy Spirit (God Himself, thought of as Three-in-One) has more than enough room to work as the great consummate Artist of events, without calling upon a ready repertoire of miracles. Occasionally, it takes one of the latter. But every year, when a tiny seed dies in the ground, and blossoms into a full shock of corn, thrusting out six or eight full ears of comparable seeds, nature itself is abundant in “miracles” of an un-miraculous, regular sort. It does not seem too far a stretch to allow for occasional real miracles, even though one prefers not to ever count on them.

That is: I think the Holy Spirit can work miracles in a conclave. Yet I can clearly see so many utterly natural, contingent possibilities that I fail to see why He would have to.


I suspect that Cardinal Ratzinger was thinking of something like this when he told a reporter that there is plain evidence that the Holy Spirit does not always make the choice of a pontiff. The dispositive evidence? There were more than a few, he noted tartly, that he would be quite reluctant to blame on the free choice of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he couldn’t even imagine the Holy Spirit picking some historical popes he could think of.

But the good cardinal, as learned as anyone in the riches of the Catholic theological tradition, did allow as how he very much counted on the Holy Spirit to protect the Church, so that no matter what, nothing completely damaging would happen. We have the promise of that: The Holy Spirit will protect the Church, though fierce storms rage, until the end of time.

We do not have the promise that the Holy Spirit, personally, will choose each and every pontiff, in conclave after conclave. Rather, each pontiff chosen is blessed with the protection of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the people he serves, at least to put some limit on the colossal damage that a truly bad pope has sometimes caused. Yet normally, out of respect for the rules of nature and liberty He Himself set, the Holy Spirit works through the actions and contingencies of real, concrete, finite, limited human beings–those 115 cardinals this time–doing their best to think through the needs of the Church. And doing their best to pick the most likely man among them to protect the data about God (Whom we do not see), the data brought to us at so dear a price by Jesus Christ.

The love that Jesus bore for his Father, even in death, and his trust in the Spirit, are as clear an image of the divine Communion as we mortals have.

That is why it is an even more sacred task to protect the data of revelation than it is, in science, to protect from contamination the data on which science works. No one must tamper with that data. To protect the purity of data is not to be “dogmatic.” It is to be of faithful service to accurate and realistic understanding. This is as true in religion as in science.

And so, when Catholics speak of the “Holy Spirit” playing a role in the conclave, don’t try to imagine a puppeteer pulling strings. The better image is that of the novelist, creating free, living, breathing, conflicted characters who make choices, and in doing so tell with these choices a magnificent story of liberty. The novelist who plays puppeteer convinces few readers that his characters are real. Real artistry lies in creating characters who are free, and who act from within the depths of their own liberty. So it is with the Artistry of the Holy Spirit in the theater of the conclaves down the centuries–a free God, Who chooses to be honored by the flawed efforts of free humans to respond to Him in their own liberty.

The God of liberty.

“Our fathers’ God, to Thee…

To Thee we sing!”

Michael Novak, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and to the Bern Round of the Helsinki Talks, holds the George F. Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.