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

Bishops arrive for the papal conclave.


George Weigel

The second conclave of 1978 was even more dramatic, and provided yet another example of how each conclave microculture is unique. The first conclave of 1978, brilliantly organized behind the scenes by Giovanni Cardinal Benelli of Florence, Paul VI’s former chief of staff, had swiftly elected the hitherto obscure Albino Cardinal Luciani of Venice in one day. Then John Paul I died after a 33-day pontificate and the College of Cardinals was spiritually and psychologically traumatized. As one elector in the 1978 conclaves put it to me years later, the sudden death of John Paul I was “a message from the Lord, quite out of the ordinary. . . . This was an intervention from the Lord to teach us something.” And the lesson learned was that the Italian hegemony of the papacy could be broken after 455 years, given the availability of a charismatic Pole named Karol Wojtyła, who was elected as John Paul II.

But if unexpected dynamics develop within the conclave microculture, both through human interaction and, Catholics believe, by the work of the Holy Spirit (which two electors told me they felt, palpably, in the second conclave of 1978), there can still be pre-conclave indicators of where the principal fault lines in a papal electorate will lie.

In 1903, before the shock of the emperor’s veto, the chief fault line lay between proLeo XIII reformers and proPius IX intransigents (specially on the question of the Holy See’s relationship to the unified Kingdom of Italy). That division replicated itself in 1914. The basic question that sorted out the electors in 1963 was whether John XXIII’s summoning of the Second Vatican Council had been a good idea or not; the pro-conciliar party won by electing Giovanni Battista Montini as Paul VI (but only after a close friend of John XXIII, Gustavo Cardinal Testa, had gotten up in the Sistine Chapel and read the riot act to the anti-conciliar faction).

The conclave of 2013 has its own unique framework, within which those unexpected intra-conclave dynamics will emerge and play themselves out. It’s not the old postVatican II progressive vs. conservative division; one of the most striking things about this conclave is that there is no progressive candidate, as there was in 2005. No, the framework-setting issue for this conclave is different: It’s the division between Old Church and New Church, between institutional-maintenance Catholicism and Evangelical Catholicism. And along that fault line there are two different approaches to what is indisputably a major issue as the conclave is enclosed: the reform of the Roman Curia.

The party of institutional maintenance would likely favor some tinkering with the Vatican bureaucracy, chiefly in terms of increased competence at the highest levels of curial leadership. The evangelical-Catholic forces want a root-and-branch reform that would dramatically change the Curia’s institutional culture (as well as ramping up the competence of its senior leadership), so that the Church’s central administrative machinery makes its own important contribution to the New Evangelization. And within that difference of approach lies another burning question: What is to be done about various unmistakable issues of corruption that were surfaced, if in a sleazy way, in the Vatileaks affair? Again, the party of reform — the evangelical-Catholic party — would favor a swift housecleaning, by analogy to FDR’s 100 Days, while the institutional-maintenance party would, most likely, deal with the most egregious offenses (and offenders) without addressing what seem to some to be systematic patterns of decay.

The fundamental direction of 21st-century Catholicism seems set: Whether the venue is Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the North Atlantic world, the Catholicism with a future is a robustly evangelical, dynamically orthodox Catholicism that invites the world into friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, that defends the dignity of every human life and the “first freedom” of religious liberty for all, and that models a more humane way of life amidst the chill winds of postmodern nihilism and skepticism. The question that will begin to be answered when the white smoke goes up is whether that process of deep Catholic reform, in the service of profound conversion and renewed evangelical energy, will be accelerated by the new pope.

 George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His new book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.