A Guide to the Conclave
Religion & Liberty Online

A Guide to the Conclave

The conclave to elect the new pope is scheduled to begin tomorrow afternoon after the public Missa pro Eligendo Pontifice (Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff) which is scheduled at 10am Rome time.   It was at this mass in 2005 after the death of John Paul II that the then Cardinal Ratizinger famously spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism.”   At 4:30 pm Rome time, the cardinals wearing full choir dress will enter the Sistine Chapel singing the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit).  Cardinals will enter into conclave (from the Latin cum clave, meaning “with key”) and they will be locked away from the world with no access to television, newspapers, or mobile phones until they have elected the new pope.

As the Conclave gets underway and the world waits to see who will be the next pope, here are some helpful hints for making your way through the media storm that is already underway.

1. The papal election is not a U.S.- or European-style political event.

In our hyper politicized world where almost everything is reduced to politics it is hard for our imagination to process a public event like the election of a new pope outside of the structures of politics.  That’s not to say there’s no politics in the Church.  There’s too much of it.  Way too much. And it’s always a factor.  Nevertheless trying to understand the papal election if the light of the American political system or interest and lobbying groups will not be of much help.

Last week I watched one of the Sunday political roundtables discuss the upcoming conclave and it was painful to hear how little the commentators (even the Catholic ones) knew about Catholicism and how they saw everything through the lens of American politics. I heard things like:

  • The Cardinals have no idea what they are going to do
  • This decision needs to happen soon and there’s not even a front-runner yet
  • The Church has got to come to terms with the modern world

I was waiting for them to start talking about the Republican Cardinals and Democratic Cardinals and how they needed good campaign managers.

This leads me to my next point.

2. When it comes to religion,  few journalists know what they are talking about.

With religion in general and specifically an event like a papal election one thing that stands out is the provincialism of journalists — as the Sunday roundtable clearly demonstrated.  Journalists like to portray themselves as cosmopolitan sophisticates and this may be true when it comes headlines, fashion and food, but when it goes beyond that there isn’t much there. In his book about the Bush family, Peter Schweitzer related how Jeb Bush said they avoided speaking to journalists about their family or anything other than politics because he said journalists tend to know very little outside what they write about, and just wouldn’t understand.

One of the problems of living in a secular, post-Christian world is that people think they know all there is about Christianity and assume that they have rejected Christianity in full knowledge.  But the reality is quite different.  Even highly educated people are quite ignorant of religion and theological doctrines.

The best journalists are humble enough to admit their lack of knowledge and do their best to get solid commentators and let the events speak for themselves. Fox News did a very good job covering Benedict XVI’s departure from the Vatican both in their choice of commentators and by letting the viewer watch and listen in without interruption.  On the morning Benedict XVI resigned I was pleasantly surprised by the coverage from NBC and the quality of their commentators from George Weigel to Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  All too often the news media dregs up some angry former religious or a priest who dusts off his clericals to appear on television as an expert.  Listening to intelligent Catholics who take the faith seriously was refreshing — and was much better journalism.  They can always ask hard questions and raise objections but at least they are getting a solid answer instead of just reinforcing each other’s ignorance.

When you follow the conclave find reliable sources and watch those media outlets that bring on well informed Catholics who understand theology and take their faith seriously.  Below I give some links and recommendations of good sources for following the conclave including several of my colleagues who will be in Rome for the event. Look for updates on the Acton Power Blog.

3. The Church understands itself theologically not politically.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying there are no Church politics.  That is part of the human condition and in fact there’s too much of it and hopefully the next Pope will help clean up the curia.  Nor am I saying that there are no voting blocks among the cardinals.  What I am saying is that the election of the pope by the Cardinals has a lot more to do with what they believe the Church and the faithful need, than with what it currently fashionable in politics.

So while we’ll hear the media talking about things like whether the Cardinals will elect a pope who will allow for women priests, reverse the teaching on contraception, or allow for abortion and so on, this is not the cardinals’ agenda.  It’s the media’s.  The pope won’t change the doctrine on women priests because the male priesthood is based on a theological doctrine not on tradition or discrimination.  A woman could no more become a priest than a man could become a mother or a sister.  Same goes for abortion and contraception.  These teachings are based on rich moral and theological reflections rooted in the understanding of the human person created in the image of God.  The new Pope wont and couldn’t change these things if he wanted to.  As Athenagoras, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople said in agreement with Paul VI’s teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae, “he could not have spoken in any other way.”  The Church does not change its position based on polls, fashion, or when a new pope comes to town. These are part of the ancient teachings of Christianity and the deposit of faith over which the pope is the steward, not the CEO.   The Cardinals will have a lot of issues in front of them, some of them undoubtedly political, but ultimately the Cardinals  are not politicians, they are pastors.  Let us pray they act that way.

There are a lot of people and news agencies covering the Conclave. Here are a few of them:

Of course—the Acton Power Blog with commentary by Fr. Robert Sirico, Dr. Sam Gregg, author of The Modern Papacy, and Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office and who worked in the Vatican for 7 years.

Vatican Information Service


Edward Pentin  you can also follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin


Katherine Lopez of National Review

Raymond Arroyo

Let me know other suggestions if you have them.

Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute