Nationality, territoriality and the College of Cardinals

With papabile punditry in full swing, and will only intensify until the white smoke appears, one element of the criteria that emerges in commentary and discussion is striking: the emphasis on the geographic background of any prospective candidate as one of the more important considerations.

One of the common features of John Allen’s papabile-of-the-day rundown has been the geographical and linguistic profile of any prospective candidate: do they come from the Church ‘outside the West’? If so, where – Latin America, Africa, Asia? Musings about an ‘African’ pope have been frequent, as have those simply contemplating a non-European figure. Do they speak Italian (in order to be able to manage the Curia)? Or what part of the Francophone, Hispanophone, Lusophone or Anglophone worlds can they relate to?

Does this matter? Should this matter? In some ways this discussion speaks to a notion that geographic background provides some kind of representative function; a non-Western cardinal becoming pope would supposedly symbolise the ‘growth’ areas of the world for the Church (although not without its own challenges) and its universality as opposed to Christianity still having some vestige of Western-ness. Certainly ‘national pride’ has been evoked by the notion of Benedict XVI as a German pope, or John Paul II as a Polish one, appealing to national affiliations as a basis of collective identity – ‘one of us’, whether among the cardinal-electors or congregations at home. But a contrast is provided by Sr. Gemma Simmonds CJ, writing for Thinking Faith:

 ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have an African pope!’ exclaimed one cheery pundit on the radio. As if someone’s race could possibly be in and of itself a qualification for the post. This sort of tokenism gets us nowhere. It certainly might be the case that a background of challenging pastoral service could well equip a pope for tomorrow, but someone’s nationality is no guarantee of that.”

A more prosaic importance of nationality, however, may lie in how the cardinal-electors arrive at their choices, the Holy Spirit notwithstanding. There is a striking passage from journalist Austen Ivereigh’s recent Tablet article on the 2005 conclave:

“I remember seeing clutches of developing-world cardinals wandering around Rome as dazed as first-time tourists; one African asked me, when he knew I worked for the English cardinal, “where are these dinners they are talking about?” Many hardly knew each other, had poor Italian and little know­ledge of Rome, and had little sense of whom to vote for…” (emphasis added)

Like all kinds of choices, the process question here is about how the cardinals will be making (or more appropriately, discerning) their decisions under conditions of uncertainty – in this setting, uncertainty about the qualities of their fellow cardinals, uncertainty about their background, and at a fundamental level, simply who each other is. A class of 120-odd electors provides a finite pool of possibilities, but is still a fairly big pool to filter through. It is here I would suggest that nationality and linguistic backgrounds possibly come into the fray as a firsthand guide to whom the electors are likely to first turn to consider the possibilities – other electors from the same national or regional background, and who share a language. Geographic affinity may matter, for the simple reason that they are more likely to have encountered each other in regional conferences and meetings; and similarly  language for little other than practical reasons of being able to actually exchange ideas and understand each other. Particularly for those electors who have little experience of Rome, these are likely to be the initial, if not main, channels of influence and persuasion that lead towards writing a particular name on the ballot.

This isn’t the same as suggesting that there is much to the notion of voting ‘blocs’ or associations along geographic and/or national lines – a background of more intensive interaction among electors in national or regional circumstances may simply mean that they come to realise who they don’t particularly like! Thus while Italian, American, or German cardinals may form substantial constituencies of electors, whether they vote in homogeneous terms is something I would be reluctant to assume.

And at the same time, the prior knowledge that national ties facilitate may be weaker at this conclave than at the previous one illustrated by Ivereigh’s anecdote quoted above. One bit of recent commentary (which I haven’t succeeded in tracking down again) noted that Benedict XVI, in a way, had sought to prepare the cardinals for this moment by convening assemblies of them at least once in each of the past few years; John Paul II on the other hand, only had a few meetings of the entire body of cardinals over his 26-year pontificate. That a number of them also had attended the 2005 conclave also means that this prior experience of the conclave process will have helped them prepare better for this time around, rather than being newcomers to the process.

Finally, in a possibly tangential way, these two elements discussed here that parse the relationship between nationality and the conclave process point to a larger tension between the Church as universal institution and its practical manifestations in different socio-cultural-economic contexts spread throughout the world. Is the hope that the electors, most of them as leaders and administrators and all its diverse circumstances around the world, coming together, produce a result that is greater than the sum of its parts? Or is it that the electors should be trying to stand outside of their immediate context to consider the prospect of a candidate who might not play very well ‘back home’ but be good for the wider Church? The universal Church is at the same time also temporally- and territorially-situated, and it is this tension that the cardinal-electors – and indeed all of us, praying for them – will be grappling with in the coming days and weeks.

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