The Unique Conclave Microculture
The dynamics that are shaping this papal election

Bishops arrive for the papal conclave.


George Weigel

Rome — My friend Alejandro Bermudez, capo of the Catholic News Agency and a shrewd observer of ecclesiastical affairs, told me something during the 2005 conclave that I’ve tried to remember — and to impress upon others. Every conclave, Alejandro said, is a unique microculture, and you can’t predict what will happen within it simply by reading the pre-conclave tea leaves. Things happen inside conclaves, away from the world and the buzz, that can shape papal elections — and pontificates — in surprising ways.

History bears that out.

In 1903, for example, Pope Leo XIII’s secretary of state, Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, was a clear frontrunner going into the conclave: He had been Leo’s right hand during the last decade and a half of a reforming pontificate and was widely thought to be the natural successor to his patron. Yet the conclave was stunned when Jan Cardinal Puzyna, bishop of Cracow (then a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), pronounced a veto against Rampolla by Emperor Franz Joseph — a modern exercise of the ancient ius exclusivae (right of exclusion) that Catholic monarchs traditionally wielded in papal elections.

The conclave was thrown into turmoil; some insisted that, in a 20th-century conclave, there was no place for state vetoes. Rampolla, understandably, protested; but when the dust settled his candidacy was finished, and in the somewhat bitter proceedings that followed, the cardinals turned in the opposite direction, away from a diplomat-prelate, to Giuseppe Sarto of Venice, a man of deep piety and extensive pastoral experience, who became Pope Pius X — and later, the first pope canonized since Pius V. (According to one tale from 1903, one of the electors who talked a very reluctant Sarto into accepting the papacy was James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. Among the first acts of Pius X’s pontificate was the abolition of the ius exclusivae.)

The following conclave, in 1914, was another donnybrook, between anti-Modernist forces and those who sought to reinstate the reformist approach of Leo XIII. At the end, the leader of the losing party, Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, challenged the validity of the election of his arch-enemy, Giacomo Cardinal della Chiesa (Rampolla’s former assistant), on the grounds that della Chiesa had voted for himself in an election decided by one vote. So della Chiesa sat in the Sistine Chapel, in a state that can only be imagined, while all the ballots were reopened and it was determined that he had not, in fact, cast the vote that had given him a two-thirds supermajority — and thus was duly elected pope. When the cardinals came up to kiss the new pope’s foot, knee, and hand (a ritual that has been abolished), Benedict XV looked into the face of Merry del Val, the man who had just publicly humiliated him, and said (without, one expects, much warmth), “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Not without a certain aplomb, Merry del Val looked into the new pope’s face and responded with the next verse of Psalm 118, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Benedict XV was not mollified, and Merry del Val was swiftly ejected from the Vatican.

John XXIII’s election in 1958 demonstrated another conclave dynamic that might have some relevance to the conclave of 2013. It was a wide-open election, with some cardinals wanting to extend, so to speak, both the policy and the style of Pius XII, and others wanting to sweep out the rooms of the Apostolic Palace, let in some fresh air, and take a different approach to the Church’s engagement with the 20th century. A small but disciplined bloc of French cardinals, committed to forwarding the candidacy of the former nuncio to Paris, Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, hung in for ballot after ballot until they had assembled a winning coalition.