Who’s next?

With Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation, his successor faces a difficult task with a Church seen by many as outdated, and a papal bureaucracy deeply flawed, writes TP O’Mahony

FOR the first time in the 2,000-year history of the papacy there will be two popes in the Vatican, living in close proximity. And the unprecedented situation created by Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise decision to resign could well serve as a template for the future.

Fr Andrew Greeley, the Chicago-based sociologist and author of The Making of the Pope, believes popes in the future may serve for fixed terms, thus removing the need for voluntary retirement. Under the current Code of Canon Law, however, only a pope can enforce that provision.

The code itself, the updated version of which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in January 1983, provides for a papal resignation. Canon 332 states: “Should it happen that the Roman pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.”

This unexpected resignation, though, creates real difficulties. An editorial in the English Catholic weekly The Tablet identified the core problem: “There is a real danger of splitting the loyalties of hitherto faithful Catholics, particularly if the new pope does things, as he is more or less bound to do eventually, that depart from the policies of his predecessor and near neighbour”.

We have to go back nearly 600 years and nearly 720 years respectively to find the last papal resignations — that of Gregory XII in 1415 and Celestine V in 1294. Looking for parallels between then and now is not really helpful. In the cases of 1294 and 1415, though for different reasons, there was an element of the bizarre. One of these was a forced abdication. Gregory was forced out to heal a breach caused by the presence of antipopes. He lived for another two years after his resignation, during which time he served as the Cardinal bishop of Porto. Celestine V, who was just Pope from Jul 5 to Dec 13, 1294, was imprisoned in the tower of Castel Fumone, east of Ferentino, by his successor, Boniface VIII. He was fearful that Celestine, who died in May 1296, could become the rallying-point for a schism. Celestine’s was the last voluntary abdication; he, like Benedict, was just overwhelmed by the job.

Since then Benedict XVI is the only other pope to freely abdicate, though his continued presence in the Vatican is inevitably going to cast a shadow over the papacy of his successor. Could the new pope, if he were so minded, take the Church in a very different direction from that pursued by Benedict XVI, knowing that the latter is living just a short distance away?

We’re entering uncharted waters here, and what happens in the next few years could set a pattern. Fixed-term pontificates are as yet futuristic, but the next pope and those who come after him will now have to take account of the novel situation established by the unexpected resignation of Joseph Ratzinger. His decision to step down from the chair of St Peter on grounds of “incapacity” will weigh on all future popes.

Benedict said he was leaving with “humility and honour”, and he undoubtedly believes that in deciding to abdicate he has acted honourably and in the best interest of the papacy and the Church. He was ideally placed to witness the way the papacy of John Paul II crash-landed three years before Karol Wojtyla actually died.

It must not be forgotten that he witnessed at first hand the distressing spectacle of the final years of his predecessor’s long pontificate when it was evident that John Paul II, stricken by Parkinson’s disease, was no longer in control. The reality is that for the last three years of that papacy no one was really in charge in the Vatican.

He would also have seen that where you have a pope who is clearly incapacitated, there will inevitably be unseemly manoeuvrings and plotting within the papal inner circle and the higher echelons of the Vatican to assume some measure of control.

The most bizarre example of this happened during the final stages of the pontificate of Pius XII, who was Pope from 1939 to 1958. When the white smoke swirled from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel in 1939, the world knew it had a new pope: Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was now Pius XII. What the world did not know was that the Church had also acquired a “Popessa” — a tiny, beautiful, brilliant nun named Sister Pascalina.

A native of Germany, she wielded a secret and unprecedented power within the Vatican. “She was the pope’s aide, his housekeeper, his confidant, his adviser, his surrogate mother, and, in critical times, his conscience,” explained Paul Murphy in his acclaimed 1983 biography (La Popessa) of the Bavarian nun.

“Her immense impact on his controversial papacy had so aroused the Sacred College of Cardinals that many of the Vatican’s purple-robed prelates had repeated demanded that he oust her.” It was towards the end of Pius’s 19-year pontificate that her role was most pronounced. She blocked access to the ailing pontiff and controlled the flow of paper to his study.

The influence wielded by Sister Pascalina was exceptional and it’s unlikely that any member of the papal household will be so powerful ever again. One of the difficulties Benedict XVI had to contend with was a dysfunctional Roman Curia (the Church’s central administration). Internal squabbling, rivalries, jealousies, and power-plays had come to the fore in the final years of John Paul II’s papacy when he was patently and painfully incapable of governing.

The continuation of this came embarrassingly into the public forum during the “Vatileaks” scandal in October 2012 when the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and placed on trial for stealing thousands of sensitive documents from the pope’s apartment and leaking them to an Italian journalist. The latter, Gianluigi Nuzzi, selected dozens of those stolen documents and used them as the basis for a best-selling book called Sua Santita (“His Holiness”).

Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, reported that these documents showed “instances of financial corruption, mismanagement, factional fighting, and careerism involving the priests and bishops that run the Roman Curia”.

Benedict’s failure to tackle these problems so alarmed one of his champions that, in April 2009, George Wiegel (author of a biography of John Paul II) wrote an impassioned article for Standpoint magazine in which he pleaded with the pope to take decisiveaction. Noting that his pontificate was proceeding “under storm clouds of crisis”, Wiegel highlighted a “complex set of administrative and managerial problems that Benedict must confront and resolve”. The title of the article was instructive: “The Pope Versus the Vatican”.

What Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger witnessed during the final years of John Paul II’s papacy left a lasting impression, so much so that three years before his shock decision he spoke of an “obligation” on an incapacitated pope to resign.

In an interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald for a book called Light of the World published in 2010, Benedict XVI said: “If a pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation, to resign.” Benedict added: “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on.”

Asked directly whether he would ever consider resigning, he said: “Yes.” In fact, we know that as Cardinal Ratziznger had asked John Paul II three times to allow him to retire but was turned down on each occasion.

Marco Politi, Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica and co-author (with Carl Bernstein) of His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time, told BBC Radio 4 after the pope’s resignation that he believed Joseph Ratzinger “was unsuited to the papal role”.

His papacy was certainly a fraught one, punctuated by a series of gaffes, all the more surprising coming from a man who was a professional theologian. Equally surprising, given that he had been at the centre of Vatican affairs for 30 years, was his inability to handle the bureaucracy, leaving in his wake a dysfunctional Roman Curia.

“He has hardly governed the Church,” wrote John Wilkins, former editor of The Tablet, “preferring to write encyclical letters, books, and speeches.” John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, compared Benedict to a headmaster writing great essays while around him the school building was on fire.

Nevertheless, when he did make his momentous decision known on Monday, Feb 11, it took top cardinals as well as the rest of the world by surprise. So an otherwise unremarkable papacy is ending with the bequest of a template that will undoubtedly impact on future popes. The decision to abdicate may even be Benedict XVI’s best service to the Church.

Benedict’s brother, Georg Ratzinger , said the outgoing pope would not in any way seek to influence the election of his successor, but that has already happened. In two addresses he gave after his momentous announcement, he pleaded for an end to divisions (an oblique admission that Church governance needs reform), and then followed this with an ultra-conservative account of Vatican II, expounding what the Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (author of A History of Christianity) described as “a narrative of Vatican II in which nothing much happened at all to the Church”. Taken together, these two addresses amount to a blueprint of sorts for his successor.

Who that new pope will be is anyone’s guess and there is a lot of guessing going on now. In theory, any of the 116 cardinals who will participate in the conclave could end up as pope. Indeed, there is nothing in Church law to prevent the cardinal-electors looking outside the conclave for a successor to Benedict, though this would be a very radical break with tradition and is therefore highly improbable.

Giancarlo Zizola, the veteran Vatican correspondent for Il Giornale (considered by many the dean of Vaticanologists), has encapsulated the key issue the cardinals must address when they assemble in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave: “What sort of pope do we need in what sort of Church for what sort of world?”

Another seasoned Vatican-watcher, the late Peter Hebblethwaite. wrote before the 2005 papal election that “a conclave throws the spotlight on the Vatican in a way nothing else does”. A lot of what that spotlight is focusing on at the present time does not make a pretty picture.

Last May we had the so-called Vatileaks, and the correspondence stolen from the pope’s study depicted the Vatican as what John Hooper, the Guardian’s man in Rome, described as “a seething hotbed of intrigue and infighting”.

Then last month the Italian daily paper La Repubblica carried a sensational story that linked the resignation of Benedict XVI to the discovery of gay prelates in the Vatican, some of whom — the story said — were being blackmailed by outsiders.

The paper said the pope had taken the decision on Dec 17 that he was going to resign — the day he received a 300-page dossier compiled by three cardinals delegated to look into the Vatileaks affair. Not surprisingly, the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi declined to confirm or deny the report.

In the run-up to the conclave the spotlight falls not just on the candidates, but — as Giancarlo Zizola indicated — on the Church itself and its structures (what kind of Church?), its governance, the way authority is exercised, and on the Vatican, especially the Roman Curia, the Church’s central bureaucracy.

When a pope dies or, as in this case, abdicates, the person who takes responsibility for organising the conclave, and who moves centre-stage, is the camerlengo (“chamberlain”). He will act in a caretaker role for the duration of the interregnum between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of a new one. The camerlengo is always a senior cardinal appointed by the pope. At present this is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

The assembly of cardinals that will elect Pope Benedict’s successor is called a conclave — the word comes from the Latin cum clave (“with a key”) — because they are locked up, cutting off all contact with the outside world. Prior to the last conclave in 2005, Pope John Paul II ordered the construction of a new and comfortable hotel block, the Domus Sanctae Marthae — St Martha’s House — to accommodate the cardinal electors. Each will be accompanied by a secretary, along with cooks and some doctors, all of whom will be required to take a solemn oath of secrecy. Each day the cardinals will be driven the short distance to the Apostolic Palace, where in previous conclaves they were housed, and which contains the Sistine Chapel. Once the conclave opens, the cardinals will be incommunicado — no cameras, radios, televisions, mobile phones, or iPads are allowed, and the electors will not be permitted to send or receive messages, read newspapers, or listen to news bulletins.

Journalists, just like members of the public, have no option but to sit and wait and watch the chimney of the Sistine Chapel for smoke signals. It’s medieval stuff, but marvellous theatre. It amounts to an extended news blackout during which, as Peter Hebblethwaite has noted, “much nonsense will be written”. During the first of the 1978 conclaves, one American journalist decided to carry out a poll among the prostitutes of Rome to gauge their expectations of the result.

“Bookmakers will offer odds,” Hebblethwaite wrote. “Fools will take them.” He added that the only safe assumption at conclaves is that the next pope will be male and will be chosen from the College of Cardinals. Theoretically they could elect any male Catholic, but that’s highly improbable. Tipping the winner, or attempting to, is a game all journalists in Rome have to play. Few get it right, but the permanent Vatican correspondents, with good inside sources, will usually be able to identify the front runners. The odds, though, are often upset.

Of the 116 (following the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh) cardinals expected to participate in the conclave, 28 are Italians. And while this is far short of the two-thirds majority required for election, there is no doubt that if the Italians can agree on a candidate before the conclave opens then as a group they would be a very strong lobby and could work collectively to drum up support for their man.

No conclave over the past 100 years has lasted more than five days. The last three never went beyond the second day, but you can never be sure. The old Roman adage that he who goes in as pope comes out as a cardinal (favourites don’t win) has been disproved a few times over the past 75 years.

In March 1939 Eugenio Pacelli, who had been secretary of state, went in the clear favourite and emerged as Pius XII. And in June 1963 Giovanni Batista Montini was hotly tipped to succeed John XXIII. He duly appeared on the central balcony of St Peter’s as Paul VI.

The cardinal-electors themselves don’t always get what they bargained for. When Gioacchino Pecci was elected as Pope Leo XIII in February 1878, he was widely regarded as a stop-gap appointment because he was almost 68 and in fragile health. Yet as J.N.D. Kelly, author of the Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, put it, he “ruled the Church with masterly flair for over 25 years”.

There was an even bigger surprise in store for the cardinals after the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII at the age of 77. Again regarded as a stop-gap pope, within months of his election he announced that he was convening a General Council — Vatican II — which turned out to be the most revolutionary Christian event since the Reformation.

Of Roncalli’s election as an apparently stop-gap measure, Eamon Duffy, author of Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, said: “Human calculation has seldom been more spectacularly mistaken”.

Will we see something as dramatic as that again in the election of the next pope? Is there a John XXIII-like figure lurking within the ranks of the 116 cardinals who will take their places in the Sistine Chapel? Based on what we know of the 116 at present, not a chance — but it would be foolish to rule out a real surprise.

Twenty years ago, many liberals, deeply disillusioned by the manner in which John Paul II introduced counter-measures to negate the reforms of Vatican II (a policy continued by Benedict XVI), looked to the progressive Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, as the next John XXIII. Repeatedly tipped to succeed John Paul II, Cardinal Martini never got the chance because liberal hopes were dashed by the sheer longevity of the Polish papacy. By the time of Karol Wojtyla’s death on Apr 2, 2005, ill-health (he also had Parkinson’s disease) had overtaken Martini, and he ruled himself out as a contender.

The day after his death on Aug 31, 2012, at the age of 85, an interview he gave to the Italian daily paper, Corriere della Sera, appeared, an interview that the Financial Times said sent “shockwaves through the Catholic establishment”.

In it, Martini, a Jesuit, said: “The Church is tired, in the Europe of wealth and in America. Our culture has aged, our churches are big, our religious houses empty, the Church bureaucracy is growing and our rites and vestments are pompous.”

Turning to the scandals of child abuse committed by priests and their protection by senior clerics, Martini went on: “The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The paedophile scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.” Then, tellingly, he added: “The Church is 200 years out of date.”

Will the new pope embark on that journey of transformation? Will he act as though he recognises the Church is 200 years out of date? Will he also recognise that the curtain must come down sooner or later on the era of a monarchical papacy? In other words, will he acknowledge that the concept of what Professor MacCulloch has described as the “all-powerful, all-providing papacy constructed after 1789 has simply been too much for any one man to embody” in the modern world?

It all depends on who is chosen as the next pope. I know from experience how hazardous predicting the outcome of a conclave is — but I have a hunch this time that the papacy, after a Polish pope and a German pope, will return to the Italians.


An artist’s rendering shows cardinals debating during the closed-doors conclave to elect the new pope at the Vatican in 2005. The drawing is by French artist Noelle Herrenschmidt. Picture: AP

The rules and procedures for the conduct of a conclave are set out in an apostolic constitution. The present one, Universi Dominici Gregis (Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock), was issued by Pope John Paul II on Feb 22, 1996, and superseded Pope Paul VI’s 1975 document entitled Romano Pontifici Eligendo (Election of the Roman Pontiff).

A new pope can amend the existing constitution or replace it with one of his own. Benedict XVI made one significant change to Universi Dominici Gregis on Jun 26, 2007, when he stipulated that a two-thirds majority is always required to elect a new pope, overruling a more flexible procedure introduced by his predecessor. This would have allowed the cardinal-electors to move to a simple majority after 13 days, when 33 or 34 ballots had been held.

Under Benedict’s new rule, if a conclave has not elected a new pope after 13 days, the cardinals will pause for a day of prayer, reflection, and dialogue, then move to a run-off election between the two cardinals who had obtained the most votes on the previous ballot.

However, the chances of a conclave lasting that long in modern times are very slim. Over the last century no conclave has lasted more than five days. Benedict XVI himself was elected in 2005 on the second day of the conclave, after only three ballots.

Just four days before his resignation, Benedict made another change. Previously conclaves could not start until 15 days after the death (or resignation) of a pope and must not be delayed beyond the 20th day. Since this time there is no dead pope, there is no need for the traditional nine days of official mourning, so the change means the conclave could begin before 15 days have elapsed.

When it opens, three cardinals are drawn by lot to act as scrutineers, to sort and count the votes. The voting papers carry the inscription ‘Eligo in summum pontificem’ (I elect as Supreme Pontiff).

The counting of votes is conducted in full view of all the electors. Usually there are two ballots in the morning session and two in the afternoon. At the end of each session the papers are burned in a small iron stove. Traditionally dry and wet straw was used to produce either white or black smoke, but after much confusion at the first of the two conclaves in 1978 it was decided to use chemicals.

When a candidate reaches the required two-thirds majority (signalled by white smoke) the senior cardinal-dean goes out onto the central balcony over the entrance to St Peter’s Basilica, and pronounces the words the world has been waiting for: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum — habemus papam!” (I announce to you a great joy — we have a pope!)

This is followed by the name of the cardinal elected, and the new name he wishes to be known by.

More on this topic

Benedict to spend retirement at Vatican gardens homeBenedict to spend retirement at Vatican gardens home

Black smoke after first papal voteBlack smoke after first papal vote

Benedict signed 'no-tweeting' order before stepping asideBenedict signed 'no-tweeting' order before stepping aside

Benedict departs the Vatican stageBenedict departs the Vatican stage


We take a trip down memory lane and check out what happened on this day in years gone by by looking back at some Irish Examiner front pages and highlighting other events which went down in history across the world.August 20, 2019: A look back at what happened on this day in years gone by

More From The Irish Examiner