ROME - One of the things about a lockdown is that it encourages mental exercises which, under other conditions, might seem utterly pointless. Here in Italy, where it often requires an hour or so just to be allowed into a grocery store right now, one has to be endlessly creative about finding ways to occupy the time.
For those of us fascinated by the Vatican and its vicissitudes, here’s one such thought experiment: What would happen if Pope Francis were to die or resign today?
To state the obvious, that’s deeply unlikely. Anyone who’s been watching Francis’s livestreamed daily Mass knows there is definitely no health crisis around the pope - he comes off as alert, determined, and good to go. It’s also highly improbable he would opt to step down smack dab in the middle of a global crisis.
However, the point of a “what if?” exercise isn’t that it’s plausible, but that it’s amusing, so let’s play out the string.
Under the rules as they stand now, a conclave would have to begin no more than 20 days after the sede vacante began, meaning when the pope died or resigned. Cardinals could decide to push things back, but given historical skittishness about doing anything that might call into question the legitimacy of an election, in all likelihood they’d feel compelled to stick to the procedures as given.
If the clock started ticking today, that outer limit for a conclave to begin would be April 10, and quite possibly it would start earlier in hopes of having a new pope before Easter, which is April 12.
Given the limitations on travel created by the coronavirus, that would likely mean the only cardinals able to participate in time would be those already living in Rome, and perhaps the rest of the Italians. (I’m presuming Italian authorities would recognize a papal election as a legitimate “work motive,” one of the four exceptions to the current ban on movement between regions, and in any event, the 1929 Lateran Pacts guarantee Italian cardinals the right to get to a conclave.)
Maybe a few other Europeans could arrive in Rome in time, but that’s uncertain and for our purposes here I’m not considering it.
Were that to be the case, there would be a grand total of 37 voting cardinals. That’s the 25 current voting-age Italian cardinals minus Cardinal Mario Zenari, the pope’s ambassador in Syria, plus 13 voting-age cardinals from other countries currently based in Rome. Naturally they would feel obligated to practice all the appropriate social distancing protocols, but with so few people in the Sistine Chapel, there’d be plenty of space. Someone might float the idea of allowing other cardinals to participate remotely using 21st technology, but for such a tradition-bound institution, that’s likely a non-starter.
Overall, there are 123 cardinals in the world today under 80, so a conclave restricted just to Vatican and Italian cardinals (many of whom are, of course, the same people) would mean that only 30 percent of the electorate would participate. What might the impact of such a low turnout be?
To begin, the voting issue in every papal conclave generally boils down to continuity vs. discontinuity. Cardinals either fundamentally approve of the papacy that just ended, in which case they want to elect someone likely to keep its basic direction going, or they don’t, so they’re looking for someone to chart a new course.
Right now, 66 of the 123 voting age members of the College of Cardinals are Pope Francis appointees, so most presumably would be continuity voters, and there are several prominent cardinals who aren’t even Francis nominees who are nevertheless key papal allies - Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, for instance, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany.
A solid majority in the entire college, therefore, likely would be inclined to support continuity, though their number probably doesn’t quite reach the two-thirds threshold to be able to elect a pope on their own, and they may need to find someone who would also be acceptable to compromise-oriented cardinals in the discontinuity camp.
In a Roman and Italian-dominated conclave, however, the math changes. Surveying the 37 cardinals who would certainly take part, my count shows 17 discontinuity voters, 12 for continuity, and 8 who aren’t clearly aligned.
In the abstract, that may seem a prescription for a 21st century version of the infamous Conclave of Viterbo in 1268, the longest in the history of the Church, when 19 cardinals were split between pro-French and pro-German factions, not to mention various personal rivalries and animosities, and took almost three years to elect a pope. Yet media attention in the 21st century, combined with the ticking clocks of Easter and the need for leadership amid the coronavirus pandemic, would almost certainly compel a much quicker result.
Here’s my guess as to what would happen.
Discontinuity voters would coalesce behind Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, emeritus Archbishop of Venice and Milan and a darling of the John Paul II/Benedict XVI years. Continuity voters initially would be split between Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis’s Secretary of State, and Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the current papal almoner, along with Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, head of the Vatican’s missionary department, both of whom would be seen as the best carriers of Francis’s evangelical and pastoral agenda.
In the end, I suspect enough discontinuity voters would turn to Parolin if it became clear Scola was never going to get to 25 votes, which is what it would take. They’d feel that although Parolin might continue to pursue some policies they don’t approve, he’s nonetheless a man of the institution and not the maverick, shoot-from-the-hip personality that Francis is.
Parolin probably would also have the support of at least some members of the Vatican’s old guard, on the time-honored logic of “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.” Moreover, many of the Italian cardinals might simply prefer the idea of bringing the papacy home.
Honestly, however, this is a bit like a computer simulation I once watched pitting 32 of baseball’s all-time great teams against one another in a single-elimination tournament. It came down to the 1927 Yankees v. the 1986 Mets, with the Yankees winning 8-4 and Babe Ruth getting the MVP award. It was interesting but ultimately meaningless, since it’ll never happen in real life.
Still, nothing will stop real aficionados, either of baseball or the Vatican, from such speculation … and there’s actually value to it, because it can help sharpen mental skills for when the real deal actually rolls around.