As most everyone knows by now, Pope Benedict XVI has resigned effective Feb. 28 and the Vatican has promised a new pope by Easter. What will they be looking for when they choose Benedict’s successor?
First off, here’s a little bit on the election process itself. Popes are elected by the College of Cardinals. They vote at a special meeting called a Papal Conclave. Those under 80 years old are eligible to vote in a ballot at the Sistine Chapel. This is a very secret vote. The security is tight.
Actually, very little is known about how the Cardinals reach a decision on a new pope. It’s not like a political election; there is no campaigning allowed. The Cardinals do meet prior to the official conclave to discuss the candidates among themselves. Liberal and conservative factions form around certain candidates, but it’s all very subtle. Personal preferences are not stated out loud.
What types of qualifications are looked at in a papal candidate? They look at nationality, for one. There has never been a non-European leader of the church, even though most Catholics live in Latin America. In fact, when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was a major contender.
Another thing they will consider is strength of leadership. One criticism that has been openly lodged against Benedict is that he failed to deal effectively with the papal bureaucracy, the Roman Curia. They need a strong leader to govern the church in an ever-changing world.
According to Catholic scholar Michael Walsh, “They need someone to sort it out. The only person who will work is a Curia official.” What he’s saying is that only a Vatican insider will do.