Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why did the Cardinals Elect Bergoglio?

Can you believe they elected me Pope?

If you had asked a million people yesterday who was going to get the nod as Pope, I think you'd be lucky if you found 100 that said, it's Bergoglio.  (And I'd bet 75 of them were Argentinian.)

What were we hearing that the Cardinals wanted before the Conclave? Reform in the Curia, where there's a myriad of administrative major hornets' nests.  An inspirational figure to embody and promote the supposedly-new-but-it's-been-going-on-for-like-20-years-now-and-no-one-really-seems-to-know-what-it-means evangelization.

Also, someone with the moral authority/lack of skeletons in the closet to deal with the ever-ongoing sexual abuse crisis. And, in some quarters, someone who can rise above some of the divisions in the Church and point us in a better direction.

So, they were looking for Jesus on a good day. Or as Tom Reese pithily put it, "Jesus with an MBA." Someone with a lot of energy, dynamism, the administrative ability to clean house and at the same time inspire.

So who did they choose? A 76 year old man who has never worked inside the Vatican, has spent his ministry working with the poor and needy. Oh, and until being chosen as bishop, he was a Jesuit.  A right-leaning one, so not at all your stereotypical son of Ignatius. But still.

The pundits will spend the next few days and the next few months trying to unwind what was behind that choice. Here are four obvious possibilities:

1) They Punted. 
Some will argue that Francis' lack of experience with the Curia is a huge advantage in trying to reform its workings. And if he were younger, that would make sense.  But he's 76. He's not going to be in this job for very long -- 6-8 years, tops, if all goes well. And he's not going to be able to maintain the sort of pace that would allow him to take care of all of that and everything else.

No, what's more likely is that the Cardinals could not agree on a slightly younger candidate who could actually take on the Curia. And so they elected a sort of interim. Like Benedict, someone who could move the ball down the field some, but without the expectation that he would make serious changes.

"Just pick somebody, already."

2) They Got Shut Down.
Another way of putting #1 would be this: the 40+ Cardinals connected to the Curia prevented the election of a real reformer. NCR reported following Cardinal Sodano's pre-Conclave homily that they thought his final words were meant to indicate Curial support for a South American peace and justice candidate (aka someone who would continue to focus on the Church's mission to the world, and leave the Curia alone).

Less than 24 hours later, that's what we got. Not too hard to connect the dots, especially after so many Cardinals seemed outspoken about the need for serious reform of the Curia.

Of course, it's always fun to be underestimated. John XXIII did a lot of things that no one expected. Many popes do. After 8 years of sort of quiet steps out of the long shadow of John Paul II (and not much else), it might have been foolish to expect another pope to do the same.

I've taught literature, psychology and theology. 
I have advanced degrees in chemistry, philosophy and theology. 
I've been the major superior of a religious order, the rector of a seminary, 
a bishop, and a member of five Vatican congregations. 
Please, Underestimate me.

3) They're Trying to Change the Terms of the Conversation. 
The thing we're all talking about is Bergoglio's connection to the poor. This is a man who lives in an apartment rather than a palace, takes the bus rather than owns a car, who has been very critical of homosexuality but then also has ministered to people with AIDS.  He's spoken out about economic inequalities, saying "the unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers." He has talked about mercy as the fundamental experience of our relationship with God.

For those of us on the left, all of this is the spiritual equivalent of catnip. People are going to go crazy for this guy. And as they do so, maybe they'll let go a bit of some of their fixation on these other problems.

In other words, Bergoglio's story and way is so strong that it'll cause us all to change the way we're thinking about other things, too.  Some of the us vs. them cannot help but get broken up and/or changed by these other ideas and peoples he represents.

A nun in St. Peter's Square reacts to the announcement of Bergoglio's new name. 

So, concretely: it gets hard to complain about the translation of the liturgy when you've got a pope reminding us that people are starving all over the world, and that we have a call to make the world a better place for all its people.

At its most cynical, this is a shell game. I get you to look over here, and you miss the ball over there.

At its best, it's inspired. A real opportunity for a new breath in the Church.  And one that puts the needs of the poor at the front and center -- not exactly the forte of any number of our Church leaders, which makes it all the more laudable.

I think it's safe to say that this man is not wearing red shoes. 

4) They Think He Can Change the Curia. 
This is the hardest to believe. There's just not much evidence to suggest Bergoglio has the sort of administrative experience or vision to reform an ancient, massive bureaucracy. And again, he's 76.

Now, his undeniable charm and authenticity might be a disarming secret weapon. And again, it's always fun to be underestimated. And to win people over without them even knowing you're doing it.

If I had to bet, I'd say the truth of the matter lies in They Got Shut Down and They're Trying to Change the Terms of the Conversation. Ideally, they'd have found a candidate who's in his late 60s and combines the talents of Bergoglio with the administrative skill they want. But there was no such person, or no such person that they could get enough Cardinals to overcome the Curia block to back.

So they went with the next best thing -- a man whose story and way could possibly really move people and change the way we're all thinking about things.

From my point of view, that might be better that having gone the other way and getting a guy who can manage but does not inspire.

But time will tell.  By all reports the Curia is a handful, chess grandmaster-adept at playing the popes to get what they want. And after 8 years of Benedict not being able to do much on the Curial level, and at least 5 years before that of a very sick John Paul II, it could be a ticking time bomb.  


Last but not least:

I did not profile Cardinal Bergoglio in my papabile. But a number of people have asked me, who would play him in the movie?

Since he's pope now, this seems an important question.

The Younger Bergoglio: Actor/Director Peter Bodganovich

Get rid of the dye job and the bandana neck scarf (?), and I think we're pretty close. 

The Older Bergoglio: Every Old Italian Grandfather Everywhere

Come on. You know you want to say it: Habemus Papas.

More A Gut Feeling: Actor John Mahoney


KenAnselment said...

Good points, Seamus, though I take issue with your casting. From photos I've seen of him, I keep "hearing" him say, "Diplomatic immunity," like the South African villain in Lethal Weapon 2 (played by Joss Ackland).

Jim McDermott, S.J. said...


Roxanne Beck said...

Great article, Jim. My favorite quote: "So, concretely: it gets hard to complain about the translation of the liturgy when you've got a pope reminding us that people are starving all over the world, and that we have a call to make the world a better place for all its people." I'm so happy about this choice and pray that Mr. Bergoglio will stick to his humble, Francis-inspired way.