In this exclusive Aleteia/H2O News interview, John Allen, Vatican Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter
, discusses the unique circumstances of the upcoming conclave, now set to begin on Tuesday, 12 March
. Allen reflects on what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s abdication means in the context of the conclave, as well as what this conclave may have in store for the future of the Church.
Why is this Conclave different from others?
Well, the most obvious difference is that this Conclave follows the resignation of a pope rather than death and I do think that changes the psychology somewhat. I mean last time in 2005, there was this massive, global outpouring of grief and love and respect and affection for John Paul II. Five million people was the estimate in terms of the mourners who poured through Rome in those days. The overwhelming sensation among the Cardinals was that they had just witnessed the end of a massively successful papacy. So the number one thing they were looking for going into that Conclave was continuity.
Now what Benedict has done by separating the end of his papacy from the end of his life is that he's created space for the Cardinals to take a more critical assessment of the papacy that has just ended. Which means that they can reach a more balanced judgement, but it also probably means that the process of deciding what the issues are and who the right pope is is going to be more complicated. I think two other obvious differences: One, is that there were only two Cardinals last time who had ever been in a Conclave before, Cardinal William Baum of the United States and Joseph Ratzinger. This time there are fifty, which means there is a much larger group of guys who think they know the lay of the land and who want to be active players in the process. And second, I think last time everyone would have agreed going into that Conclave that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the clear front runner, which meant that the conversations could be organized around him. I think this time most people would say there is no such clear front runner. There is instead a number of very strong candidates, which maybe means the Cardinals can take a closer look, but it also, I think, means that the politics of all this are more complicated than the last time around.
Is it possible to have an American pope?
Well, you know in the old days people used to say that an American pope was unthinkable, that you can't have a superpower pope. I mean the idea is that America already has too much influence in the world. And you know, somebody would think that Vatican policy was being scripted by an underground chamber in CIA headquarters. But I think in the early 21st century we're in a different world. The United States is no longer the only superpower and so I think the idea of an American pope has become more plausible.
The problem is when the Cardinals go into the Sistine Chapel they're not voting for a passport, they're voting for a man. And while there are some American Cardinals who I think might get a look. I think they're all probably long shots, primarily because none of them have deep Vatican experience. And I think that one thing that is very important for the Cardinals this time around is governance. They want someone who can get control of the Vatican bureaucracy. And somebody who is a complete outsider to that environment probably is not going to strike them, at least in the first round, as an automatic candidate.
What is the big challenge for the next pope?
You know, I think the challenge facing the next pope, depends to a very great extent on what part of the Catholic world we're talking about. You know there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, two-thirds of whom live outside the West. So if you're in Europe, maybe the big challenge is the struggle against secularism. If you're in Nigeria, maybe the big challenge is the rise of Boko Haram and Islamic militancy. If you're in India, its the rise of Hindu radicalism and the fear that bands of Hindu radicals are going to storm into your village and try to reconvert you to Hinduism down the barrel of a gun. If you live in Latin America, its the explosion of Pentecostal and Evangelical sects that have eaten into traditional Catholic populations. So, I think the Catholic Church is a wildly riotously, diverse enterprise – flung to the four corners of the planet. And the trick is, to have a pope with a sufficiently global vision, that he can somehow reach his arms out and embrace all of that.