Monday, May 3, 2021

Slowing Down the Conclave

Alberto Melloni, professor of history of Christianity at the University of Modena/Reggio Emilia, has written an interesting and provocative piece in the April 24 issue of The Tablet, "How to Elect a Pope," in which he argues for reforms in the current conclave procedure. He makes some very valid and useful points. Unfortunately he begins with an apocalyptic scenario, which he says "demands an urgent revision of the rules," a scenario the risks of which he himself acknowledges no revision in the rules would effectively eliminate.

Melloni worries, rightly, that "well funded and well organised lobbyists and campaigners" and "powerful pressure groups or the emperors of social media" may in effect wield the infamous "veto," which Catholic monarchs wielded in papal elections as recently as 1903. His greatest fear seems to be the "revelation" of some supposed past behavior "rendering a newly elected pope unsuitable for office," the very thing that was attempted in 2013 when accusations were thrown against the new Pope Francis about his behavior during Argentina's 1970's "Dirty War." He is right that all such risks cannot be eliminated, and my guess is that, barring the highly implausible election of a very young, totally unknown prelate, who had never said or done anything of note, such scenarios will be increasingly likely, because that is the world and media universe we are now living in.

That said, Melloni does raise some other important concerns and does make some very sensible suggestions to address them. At present, we have more cardinals than ever, from more far away places than ever - a far cry from when there were only a few cardinals all or most of whom lived in Rome and participate in the government of the Church. At the same time, the cardinals seldom meet together, and have not done so now for some time. This means that a conclave could be composed of cardinals most of whom do not know each other and have little experience of interacting with one another. That alone would make it hard for them individually to decide whom to vote for and for sufficient votes to coalesce around an appropriate choice. All of which seem to highlight Melloni's fear of outside pressures in the pre-conclave.

So Melloni proposes that the cardinals (all of them, including the non-electors) should all live together at Santa Marta from the time they arrive. This would help them get to know one another and hopefully offer "more opportunities for genuine dialogue." Less logically in my opinion, he then proposes to restrict the general congregations to the cardinal electors alone. This might make the meetings somewhat more manageable in terms of size, but might also diminish the quality of the discussion by eliminating some of the most experienced voices. He further would exclude all cardinals over 75, further diminishing the pool of experienced participants. Had such a rule been in force, we would, of course, have no Pope Francis and would have never had Pope Saint John XXIII (and possibly no Vatican II). I am all for reforming the process, but not necessarily by reducing either the number of participants or the number of papabili.

To my mind, his most important proposal and the one most likely to produce real benefit is to start with only one ballot per day, gradually increasing the number if the conclave continues beyond a few days. As he points out, the two 21st-century conclaves "each lasted less than 28 hours." Quick conclaves please the press, but do not promote deliberation and discernment and do not necessarily benefit the Church. They favor obvious front-runners, especially so given the already mentioned ignorance so many cardinals may have about one another and about the multiplicity of options they might have if they took the time to consider them all. 

I am sure some might fear that a longer conclave would give the impression of a Church divided and conflicted (which, of course, happens to be the case right now anyway, something everyone already knows about). To me, that is either a rationalization for our contemporary shortened attention span or yet another unjustified concession to the media and its politicized and sensationalized agenda. In fact, I think a conclave that lasted as long as a full week might well offer the necessary opportunities for deliberation, debate, and discernment, which really should be the point of a conclave.

Melloni's bottom-line is that he wants to avoid the risks to the Church posed by conclaves "such as we had in 2005 and 2013, run according to the same rules and in the same conditions, but with a group of cardinals even less familiar with each other, and perhaps even more emotionally exposed and vulnerable to external pressures and manoeuverings." On that, I think, he is right.

Most modern popes have tinkered with the electoral process. Pope Francis would do well to slow down the next conclave by implementing Melloni's proposals regarding the number and frequency of ballots.

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