by Jonathan Wright

Cardinal Virtues

March 28, 2013 | by Jonathan Wright

Papal conclaves aren’t what they used to be. It only took a few days and five ballots to elect Francis I and, as best as we can tell, it was a well-organised and suitably decorous affair. The mischievous historian in me almost longs for the time when conclaves were ill-humoured and could last for years. In the middle of the thirteenth-century the people of Viterbo grew heartily tired of the squabbling papal electors who had been abusing the town’s hospitality, depleting its precious food and resources, and not coming close to a decision about who should follow in St Peter’s footsteps. An obvious solution presented itself: the citizens of Viterbo ripped the roof off the building in which their ecclesiastical leaders were gathered and hoped that heavy rain showers would force them into action. This was hardly an ideal way of proceeding but at least there was a healthy dose of drama. 

Papal elections are much more seemly and, for all the pomp and pageantry, even a little boring these days. Cardinals gather in pre-conclave meetings to discuss (with impressive frankness) the state of the Church, they chatter at receptions, and gossip over dinner. The wheat is sorted from the chaff and by the time the conclave proper gets underway sides have usually been taken and a couple of front-runners have usually emerged. It was a little trickier this time around (lots of names were in the mix and hardly anyone anticipated the astonishing result) but the system still worked very well.

There are signs of modernity in the papal election process — the attempts (less ham-fisted with every passing conclave) to deal with the media, for example, or the way in which electronic buzzers sound when garrulous cardinals talk for too long in the pre-conclave ‘congregations’ — but there is also something timeless and, for the outsider, something mysterious about the way in which the Catholic Church chooses its leader. It comes down, in theory, to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and, from a Catholic perspective, that’s as it should be: Providence must play a leading role and the Church always, but always, elects the pope it deserves. That’s simply how the Pet-rine succession works. Still, one can’t help but suspect that the man who gets the top job sometimes wishes the Holy Spirit had acted differently. This was surely the case with Benedict XVI, who would have been much happier in his study, and one suspects it is the case with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was presumably looking forward to a relatively quiet retirement at home in Argentina.

His days of commuting by bus are probably over but the fact that Bergoglio is a Jesuit may help him adjust to his new, unanticipated role. Op-ed writers around the world have been puzzling over the fact that it has taken five hundred years to elect a member of the Society of Jesus as pope but there’s no great mystery. Firstly, no Jesuit stood much of a chance in previous centuries: the Society has always had too many enemies within the Catholic fraternity. Secondly, Jesuits have never been obsessed with securing high ecclesiastical office: indeed their founder, Ignatius Loyola, was a stern opponent of careerism. But when called to high office Jesuits are obliged to comply. Bergoglio could hardly turn down the job offer and he can look to a long history of fellow Jesuits having greatness thrust upon them. This is sure to be a source of comfort but when it comes to what he’ll achieve in the Vatican, well, this is very hard to predict.

First, Francis will have to weather the storm provoked by all the prying into his past. Another thing that seems to separate papal elections from, say, the appointment of senior politicians or Supreme Court justices is the apparent lack of vetting (an infelicitous word, but a useful procedure). We should not push this idea too far, however.

I may be proven wrong, and scrutiny is absolutely appropriate, but those cardinals know a great deal about each other and they would be averse to electing someone who was unable to account for his earlier deeds.

Second, he will have to take a position on the crises and conundrums facing the Church. On some issues we can expect more of the same. The fact that Francis is a socially-engaged priest does not mean that he is going to upset any apple carts when it comes to abortion or homosexuality: his opinions seem fixed on these and related issues. He is no kind of radical and he looked askance at Liberation Theology even when it was very fashionable in his homeland. But I do think we can anticipate dynamism in other areas not least because, as the first Jesuit and Latin Ameri-can pope, he carries an enormous historical burden. The Jesuit factor will be crucial.

I have already talked about earlier papal conclaves but one in particular – in 1769 – must be at the front of Francis’s mind as he settles into his Vatican apartments. Over the previous decade the Society of Jesus had been banished from many of Catholic Europe’s leading nations and it was no longer legal to be a Jesuit in France, Spain, Portugal or their overseas territories. The upcoming papal election was all about the fate of the Society of Jesus. Zelanti cardinals campaigned for a pope who would defend the Jesuits; Politicanti cardinals preferred someone who would see the way history was unfolding and accept the logic of the Jesuits’ global suppression.

When the conclave reached its verdict one English Jesuit in Rome, John Thorpe, feared the worst: ‘the unanimous election of Cardinal Ganganelli was no sooner divulged about the city than everyone looked upon the Jesuits… to be inevitably ruined.’ As things turned out it took another four years for Clement XIV to abolish the Society of Jesus and when the axe finally fell there was great reluctance on the part of the pope. For the next forty years the Jesuits managed to survive. Not, in most places, as a corporate entity but as an idea and, by 1814, they were restored by papal command.

Francis I is doubtless very familiar with this history and he must be delighted by the extraordinary timing of his election: just one year shy of the 200th anniversary of his order’s return to the fold. Cause, certainly, for celebration but also a source of trepidation. Two hundred years is a short time in papal politics and there are still those who would relish the spectacle of a Jesuit making a hash of things. It would therefore make sense for Francis to put a Jesuit stamp on his tenure in the Vatican. Not out of revenge but because the results would be very interesting.

The only problem is that it is very hard to pin down exactly what the Jesuit identity is. Over the past few days, I have grown increasingly infuriated at the attempts to sum up one of the most complex and confusing religious orders in Roman Catholic history. Every newspaper and website in town has provided a primer and almost without exception they have done a terrible job. Some commentators have decided that the Jesuits have always been a radical bunch; others have declared that they  have always been papal lap dogs. We’ve heard a lot, from both sides of the interpretive fence, about a static Jesuit ethos. The truth, I’m happy to report, is far more fascinating.

There are, of course, Jesuit constants: a passion for mission and education, an engagement with all corners of the arts and sciences and, a few awkward moments aside, a deep loyalty to Rome. None of this should blind us to the fact that the Society’s history has been as muddled as it has been impressive. There have been conservative Jesuits and progressive Jesuits; missionaries who respected indigenous cultures and adapted their evangelical message accordingly and missionaries who treated those cultures with contempt; priests who emerged as peaceniks and champions of social justice and priests who supported noxious regimes.

If we have any hope of understanding the Jesuit taproots of the new papacy it is time to put away the stereotypes, though this will take some doing. For centuries attempts have been made to identify the essence of the Society of Jesus and, more often than not, the caricatures have been decidedly negative. Lax morality, secretiveness, and a penchant for regicide have usually headed the list of charges and many languages have a special word — Jesuitical, in English — with profoundly negative connotations. None of this is helpful, and neither is a counterblast that portrays the Society of Jesus in an overly roseate light. We should listen to James Bro-drick, a Jesuit himself, who put it very well in his detailed history of the order: on one hand there is the ‘great army of canonised or beatified saints and martyrs,’ but on the other ‘there have been bad, unscrupulous, ambitious, foolish Jesuits… and a Jesuit fool is much the same as any other sort of fool.’ 

Bergoglio is clearly not a fool and, in many ways, he encapsulates the perennial tensions of the Jesuit enterprise. He is the humble man who, clearly, must have some ability to play the game of ecclesiastical politics and someone who treads a fine line between respecting tradition and confronting the challenges of the modern world. So perhaps my initial diagnosis was unfair. Perhaps papal conclaves can still be quite dramatic. Someone joked that the roof-removing antics at Viterbo finally provided an entry for the Holy Spirit. This time around it took a less theatrical journey and it is easy to mock the sight of all those aged cardinals sitting in rows, chatting and praying, then enjoying pleasant suppers in comfy surroundings. The deck is always stacked, of course, because the papal priority is to appoint cardinals who are likely to appoint someone who will carry forward your vision of the Church. Nor is the process a shining example of representative government (not that it should be) and once you are on the inside you are likely to stay there unless you behave in an exceptionally heinous way (no prizes for guessing to whom I am referring). But, for all that, the College of Cardinals did something quite spectacular in March 2013, and with surprising speed. They elected a Jesuit pope. No-one saw this coming. Not Benedict who, one suspects, is less than pleased and not the new boss at the Vatican who, surely, is baffled and nervous.

With more than a little audacity I would offer Francis one piece of advice. Look back on Jesuit history, in all its complexity, and learn  from the best of it. The whole story began with an attempt to serve and improve the Church and Catholics and non-Catholics alike would welcome the authentic continuation of this tradition. It’s a lot to ask but, while most stereotypes are silly, one is legitimate: Jesuits have always relished a challenge.

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