On CNN’s Connect the World programme on Mar 11, the day before the conclave opened, host Becky Anderson asked me a question about geographic blocs in the college of cardinals.
Here’s what I said: “If there were a lone strong Latin American candidate, I think that guy would already have this race sewn up… The problem is, there isn’t just one plausible Latin American, there are several.”
As it turns out, I was half-right.
Although there were other compelling Latin American candidates heading into the voting, a lone strong candidate from the region emerged within five ballots, well under the 7.4 rounds of voting that form the statistical average for the previous nine conclaves.
After the Pope’s bravura debut — asking for the people’s blessing before bestowing his own, referring to himself modestly as “bishop”, and most revolutionary of all, taking the name of Francis — the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio runs the risk of seeming obvious.
In fact, however, it probably took the intersection of several currents in the college of cardinals to carry Bergoglio to the papacy.
For now it’s possible to identify at least three blocs that might have found their man in the 76-year-old Jesuit from Buenos Aires.
First, cardinals who spoke in pre-conclave interviews about the desirability of electing a pope from outside the West probably saw him as their best bet, especially given the support he attracted eight years ago, when he was effectively the runner- up to Pope Benedict XVI.
It’s reasonable to surmise that once Bergoglio’s candidacy seemed real, he attracted most of the votes of the 19 Latin American cardinals, as well as substantial numbers of the 11 Africans and 10 Asians.
To that total have to be added cardinals from Europe and the US who wanted to elect a non-Western pope, in order to put a face on Catholicism’s dynamism across the southern hemisphere.
Second, although Bergoglio is unquestionably orthodox, he may have once again attracted support from European moderates who turned to him eight years ago as the main alternative to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. For that constituency, the fact that Bergoglio is a Jesuit with a reputation for holding diverse currents within the order together probably made him seem attractive.
Those European moderates didn’t have the numerical weight in 2013 that they wielded in conclaves past, but they probably repre-sented about 15-20 votes.
Third, Bergoglio would have appealed to a current within the 38 Vatican cardinals who took part in the conclave, especially those who come out of the Vatican diplomatic tradition and prize the Holy See’s traditional role as a voice of conscience on the global stage.
For that current, a pope devoted to the peace and justice teaching of the Church, especially solidarity with the poor, could position Catholicism once again to be a relevant political and social force in the early 21st century.
Those cardinal-diplomats represented some 10-15 votes in the conclave.
Adding up 40 cardinals from the developing world, 20 European moderates, and 15 diplomats comes to 75 votes, just two short of the threshold of 77 required to elect someone pope.
As a cardinal who never worked in the Roman Curia, and who has a track record of criticising careerism and ambition, Bergoglio would also have appealed to those cardinals seeking a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy — reform in the sense of a return to the Gospel as personified in Francis of Assisi.
What tends to happen in a conclave is that one someone’s election begins to seem inevitable, others join the bandwagon in order to offer the new pope a unified show of support.
At least at first blush, that way of running the numbers seems to compute.
* This is an edited version of an article from the National Catholic Reporter
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