Vatican elections: Keeping up with modern world

Whoever gets the top job in the Vatican, Eddie Ford strongly suspects that he will not be in any way progressive

Taking almost everyone by surprise, on February 11 pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) announced that he was resigning with effect from February 28. He has become the first pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415.

Fairly inevitably, the news has disturbed some. The more superstitiously inclined attributed great significance to the fact that a lightning bolt struck the top of St Peter’s Basilica just hours after the surprise news. Of course, given that the Vatican bureaucracy is a “palace of gossipy eunuchs”, as one papal historian described it, there have been mutterings of disapproval in some quarters about the nature of Ratzinger’s departure. He should have soldiered on to the bitter end, just like his predecessor and co-thinker, John Paul II (aka Karol Józef Wojty?a).

Given the unprecedented nature of Ratzinger’s move, at least in modern times, no-one appears to know at the moment what his exact post-papacy honorific should be - there are no canon law provisions regarding the statute, prerogatives or titles for a retired pope. In the meantime, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said he expects a new pope to be in place by March 31 - although no date has yet been set for the secret conclave to elect a new leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

Secret elections

Papal elections are highly competitive. The prospective candidates have about two weeks to forge alliances and do deals, and senior cardinals who themselves have little chance of winning may still be able to exert enough influence or prestige to get their favoured man in the papal chair - and a man it always is and always will be, god willing. The bizarre, arcane and secretive rituals (even if we now know about most or all of them) that attend the election are like something straight out of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Popes are chosen by the college of cardinals, the church’s most senior officials - who in turn are appointed by the pope and usually ordained bishops (a bit like the way the Socialist Workers Party’s central committee is elected). So 67 of the current cardinal-electors were appointed by Benedict XVI, and 50 by John Paul II. During the conclave, cardinals must reside within the walls of the Vatican and are not permitted any contact with the outside world - or so the theory goes. However, it is not entirely impossible that today’s cardinals - though doubtlessly guided by the holy spirit in all their deliberations - may have access to more modern forms of communication. The dreadful encroachment of the secular world.

The cardinals, as it so happens, do not have to choose one of their own number for pope. Notionally, any baptised male Catholic can be elected - even you reading this. But don’t get your hopes up. Anyone can become pope in the same way that anyone can become US president - it just happens every time to be a very wealthy and/or extremely well-connected individual. Official church tradition, and more importantly Realpolitik, dictates that they will give the job to a senior cardinal - anarchy and mayhem, if not ecclesiastical revolution, would certainly ensue if anything else was allowed to happen.

Before the voting begins in the Sistine Chapel, the entire area is checked by security experts to ensure there are no hidden microphones or cameras. Furthermore, all the staff and officials have to swear an oath promising to observe perpetual secrecy and undertake not to use sound or video recording equipment. Just about the most dreadful form of punishment conceivable hangs over the heads of anyone tempted to break this silence - ie, excommunication. Again, this writer is reminded of the SWP.

The entire election process can sometimes go on for weeks or months - it has not been unknown for cardinals to die during a conclave. Therefore two doctors are allowed in, as well as priests, who are able to hear confessions in various languages from the cardinals and housekeeping staff. If after three days of intense balloting and politicking nobody has gained the required two-thirds majority, voting is suspended for a maximum of one day to allow a much needed pause for prayer, informal discussion and a “brief spiritual exhortation” by the senior cardinal in the order of deacons - pull your finger out, guys.

Eventually, deaths aside, a scrutineer calls out the names of those cardinals who have received votes and pierces each paper with a needle - placing all the ballots on a single thread. The ballot papers are then burned, which traditionally produces the smoke visible to onlookers outside announcing the completion of the election. Damp straw was once added to the stove to turn the smoke black, but this was found to be very unreliable, so now a dye is used to avoid any confusion. Keeping up with the modern world.

Naturally, there are numerous runners and riders for the papal vacancy. Possible bookies’ favourite is cardinal Angelo Scola, aged 71, the most prominent Italian candidate and a conservative who has been close to the last two popes, personally and theologically. Then again, his intimate ideological proximity to Ratzinger might in the end actually count against him - especially bearing in mind his unwise remarks in 2010 at the height of sex abuse allegations against the church, when he called the media’s attacks on the pope an “iniquitous humiliation”. Foot in mouth disease.

Then there is Odilo Scherer, 63, the archbishop of Sao Paulo - making him head of the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic country, Brazil. Not a nobody then. Many see him as a compromise candidate who could satisfy both European and Latin American congregations, though admittedly he does have a black mark for failing to reverse the seemingly inexorable decline of Catholicism in Latin America.

As for Peter Turkson from Ghana, he is the most talked about candidate for obvious reasons. The 64-year-old, a whippersnapper by Vatican standards, is the ‘relator’, or general secretary, of the Synod for Africa. He has also served as head of the Vatican’s council for justice and peace, which in 2011 released a document denouncing the “idolatry of the market” and “neoliberal thinking”. Instead, like good sheep, we are presumably meant to return to the fold of the only proper authority - the supernatural creator of the universe and the institution on this sinful mortal coil that reflects his divine wishes, the Catholic church.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility that we will shortly have a black pope as well as a black US president. A development that would bring joy for some, whilst leaving others aghast.


When John Paul II died in 2005 to near universal mourning, the brainless Bono rhapsodised about him being the “first funky pope”. Well, he was not and neither was Ratzinger - the former head of the congregation of the doctrine of the faith: ie, boss of the inquisition.

Rather, Ratzinger represented a continuation of John Paul II and his noxious legacy - the Joseph and Karol double act. John Paul II doggedly pursued a reactionary, counterrevolutionary, pro-American and pro-imperialist agenda. Prior to his reign, particularly with Vatican II (1962-65), sections of the church hierarchy had decided that peaceful coexistence with the ‘socialist world’ was the only option - after all, the Soviet Union was clearly here to stay. No need to rock the boat. But, hailing from ‘socialist Poland’, John Paul II knew better than most that bureaucratic socialism was doomed. Hence he played his part in the downfall of ‘official communism’ - channelling CIA money into Solidarno??, going on the ideological offensive, and so on. In that way, he was god’s cold-war warrior, and played his hand well.

Such theological and ideological nimbleness fits into a general pattern. Communists are the first to acknowledge that the Catholic church - contrary to what some might think - is an exceedingly canny institution, albeit in a totally reactionary way. How else has it managed to survive so long? It is very aware of history and knows when to change. After the collapse of the western Roman empire it successfully adapted to feudalism. Then with the rise of capitalism, to which it was initially resistant - if not downright hostile - it could see when it had to change horses. The church even knew how to respond to the emerging working class movement, with its promotion from the 1870s onwards of social Catholicism as an explicit alternative to social democracy.

Even if under radically different circumstances, Ratzinger was a cold-war warrior too. His encyclical letter issued in 1984 made that crystal-clear. It was primarily targeted at liberation theologians in Latin America, even if many of them took a while to realise that. They preached that oppression is sinful, that wealth should be distributed to the masses, etc. Ratzinger was having none of this, so brought the whole weight of the Catholic hierarchy down on the heads of these turbulent theologians with this edict. Various bishops were sacked or purged. Threats were made. No more books on liberation theology, no more community-level organisations or people’s churches. Let alone doing a Camilo Torres, who attempted to reconcile Marxism and Catholicism by joining leftwing guerrillas, eventually being made into an ‘official’ martyr by the Colombian National Liberation Army.

In the same encyclical, Ratzinger wrote a passage that all but summed up the grotesquely reactionary nature of the Catholic church. For the departing pope, Christianity “did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed”. “Jesus was not Spartacus,” Ratzinger continued - he was “not engaged in a fight for political liberation”.

It would be the height of obscenity to posit any sort of line of continuity between the apocalyptic communism of the revolutionary Jewish Galilean, Jesus, and the wretched anti-revolutionism espoused by Joseph Ratzinger. And we have no reason to think that his successor will be fundamentally different. In reality, official Christianity itself stands in direct antithesis to everything Jesus and his early followers struggled and fought for - to forcefully overthrow a brutal, oppressive occupation and turn the world upside-down.