Envisioning a Conclave in the Era of Trump

On December 17, Pope Francis turned eighty. That’s an important age for a churchman: it’s when cardinals lose their right to vote in the conclave, which means they most certainly lose any chance to be elected pope. It’s also the age at which they give up their positions in the Roman Curia, even though the most powerful of them retain some influence de facto.

Most popes in the last one hundred years reached the age of eighty, but Francis’s situation is a particular one. Because he was elected after Benedict XVI’s resignation, his own resignation must be considered a possibility, one the vast majority of Catholics do not even want to think about, given his popularity. But there are no signs that Francis is slowing down or thinking about resigning.

Nevertheless, the attention surrounding Francis’s birthday inevitably raises thoughts (if largely unspoken) about the next conclave. It is surely premature to advance hypotheses on potential candidates and alliances, to say nothing of who might be pontiff. But it’s not too early to think about the next conclave in terms of the larger global situation the next pope would face. The conclave is an institution that is supposed to interpret not just the state of the Church but also the state of the world. Moreover, Francis’s pontificate has clearly aimed at shaping a new relationship between the Catholic Church and the world ad extra more than it has at advancing a program of reforms. It would be naïve to think that the state of international affairs will not influence cardinals when they meet to elect the successor to Francis.

The next conclave could take place during the administration of Donald Trump, whose presidency could have an impact on the posture and perception of American cardinals in the conclave. But it would not diminish the difficulty of imagining an American pope. The chances of an American cardinal being elected pope will always be slim, given the role of the United States as global superpower, and given the somehow exceptional role of American Catholicism in world Catholicism. (It is interesting to note that the ten-episode series The Young Pope, coming to HBO on January 15, gives us a mercilessly conservative American pope.) Whatever a Trump administration brings to America and the world, how U.S. bishops respond (engage? resist? acquiesce?) will certainly influence how they’re perceived in the rest of the Catholic world, the Vatican included.

Of course, there is much to be concerned about worldwide even without the prospect of Donald Trump’s presidency. Liberal democracy (in terms of respect for fundamental civil and political rights, the rule of law, freedom of the press) is in crisis in democratic and largely Catholic countries like Poland and the Philippines. Such upheaval could affect the chances of a particular candidate to be electable at the conclave. Last week, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, emeritus of São Paulo, Brazil, died at the age of ninety-five; he stood up to military dictatorship and became a symbol of a Catholic Church speaking up for democracy and human rights in the Latin America of military juntas. One wonders how many Catholic bishops worldwide are now ready to stand up against the collapse of the constitutional democratic system in their own countries. Not many bishops seem to put a lot of faith in democracy. The magisterium of the “non-negotiable values” between John Paul II and Benedict XVI gave the impression that the Catholic Church sees in liberal democracy a system that legalized practices fundamentally contrary to Catholic moral teaching. Part of the problem today is the new form of attack against the idea of the common good; it no longer comes under the auspices of totalitarian and fascist worldviews as in the first half of the twentieth century, nor does it come in the form of violent overthrow of fragile democracies, as in Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century. Now it is a subtle and sneaky erosion of democracy by demagogic populism, against which the Church must still find its own voice.

The reluctance or timidity of Catholic leaders around the world to articulate a challenge to such attacks could factor into how the next conclave goes about evaluating potential “papabili.” Consider Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, for example: How might the fact that his nation’s president has boasted of personally carrying out extrajudicial killings when he was mayor come into play? Regardless of the personal qualities of such a candidate, such a situation could pose problems.

Timidity is, of course, an issue among many of the Catholic hierarchy: Witness, for example, the relative restraint among the vast majority of bishops who are not opposed to Francis’s position on communion for the divorced and remarried (as opposed to the vocal minority protesting it). The Catholic Church of Francis depends enormously on the person of Francis. There do not appear to be cardinals in the global Church who could continue Francis’s work. But nor are there cardinals whom one could imagine changing course or reversing Francis’s work. This is a side-effect of the polemics around Amoris Laetitia, but also a side-effect of a Church that is more and more affected by the media presence and the teaching (in all forms, especially the new ones: daily homilies, symbolic gestures, interviews) of the pope(s). This is something that started well before Francis; it’s more a post-Vatican I than post-Vatican II phenomenon. We have in other words come a long way from the first papal interview, that of Leo XIII with French newspaper Le Figaro in 1892.

Yet at the same time, political attention seems to be focused on the Vatican more than it used to be, and thus the political credibility of the Catholic Church is increasingly centered there. For example, the pope is now personally mediating the situation in Colombia directly from the Vatican, which is a sign of the weakness of local Catholic elites, especially episcopal elites. 

The conclave of 1939 elected the most important Vatican diplomat, Secretary of State Cardinal Pacelli, who took the name of Pius XII: a pope for a wartime papacy. The conclave of 1978 chose a young cardinal from beyond the Iron Curtain dividing the free world from Communist-ruled Eastern Europe: John Paul II was a pope for a Cold War papacy. The conclave of 2005 elected Benedict XVI, the natural successor of John Paul II, but it was also the post-9/11 conclave.

The Vatican is already dealing with a world at war, what Francis has called a “piecemeal World War III.” The global geopolitical situation is redefining how some Catholic Churches see themselves in the world (for example, the position of the Catholic Church in the U.K. post-Brexit; the Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe dealing with the crises of the EU and NATO; the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Middle East). It is also giving the Secretariat of State under Francis a stronger role than before, and the announced reform of the Curia seems to suggest the Secretariat of State will have greater power in relation to the rest of the Curia. We’ll see how that and the role of Cardinal Pietro Parolin in Francis’s pontificate will play into Church politics between now and whenever the next conclave meets. And in this time, a Trump presidency will be among the factors that come into play.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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