The rapid emergence of the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, 63, as a leading figure going into the papal conclave is a fresh new illustration of Italian political marksmanship.
Venice has long been a strategic posting, and two of the last four popes held Cardinal Scola’s see (three popes since 1900). Therefore Cardinal Scola, who was only made a cardinal in 2003, quickly assumed a strong position.
What the cardinal has done in the past few months has heightened his visibility in a startling way. Cardinal Scola attracted the international media’s attention in February when he spoke of the danger of Muslim immigration in Europe. In February, he visited the United States and addressed the World Jewish Congress on Catholic-Jewish relations.
Cardinal Scola’s confident appearance on the international scene is large with implications. There is a widely acknowledged move to re-establish the papacy in Italian hands, for a very practical reason: They know how to govern the church. It has been whispered by a couple of retired cardinals to this writer that Pope John Paul II could not govern and did not try.
Were the patriarch of Venice to say absolutely nothing at all in the years leading up to a conclave, he’d still be strongly considered for the papacy. Yet Cardinal Scola’s appealingly smooth demeanor, his multi-lingual ability and his I.Q. have now been put on display in so deft a manner as to take him from obscurity two years ago to the most-noticed of the Italian cardinals. Cardinal Scola is not given to grandstanding and would never advance his own cause crassly, any more than Karol Wojtyla — John Paul I I— did his.
So why is he visible at this time? It’s overwhelmingly likely that a large segment of the College of Cardinals has signaled Cardinal Scola that they think he might be elected. So, they have asked him to “go public.” Cardinal Scola’s utterances, in a media age, are really a prelude to the first conclave in which it is “impossible to hide” (or so it is said) from the hordes of television, Web and print reporters. What used to be done in private is now — alas — conducted partly in public.
Beyond the Cardinal Scola issue, pre-conclave “discussion” among the principals, from the mid-1990s onward, was at times remarkably public:
When in the mid-1990s the respected leader of the world’s largest Catholic archdiocese — Milan, Italy — implied that the church could still discuss the matter of women priests, he spoke for a significant minority of his colleagues.
When the German cardinal who heads a key Vatican office declared that things have gone too far in a liberal direction at many Catholic Masses, he spoke for a diverse group of colleagues who have also had it up to here with hip liturgy.
When at Georgetown University the church’s leading Third World cardinal criticized the trend toward acceptance of homosexuality, he echoed the views of most of his colleagues. (When he refused to back down, he showed himself too tough for some.) Still and all, the question for conclave watchers is not which sub-set of cardinals prevails, but which group is able to knit together enough allies to elect a man acceptable to the whole.
In conclaves of recent centuries, that acceptability was measured by a two-thirds majority vote. This time around, because of a rules change by Pope John Paul II, if the first 28 ballots elect no one, the church’s leaders can switch to a simple 51 percent majority vote. The rule change favors the Italians.
With no more than 17 percent of the votes in the next conclave and a marginally diluted influence in the current regime, the Italians are supposed to be finished as a force. If this were so, their influence in papal elections would have long since waned, because for many decades they have lacked anything close to a majority of votes. Talk of their diminished influence began in the 1950s. Three Italian popes were promptly elected in succession.
A papal conclave, which is an event almost, but not exactly, sacred to Catholics, is also one of the most fascinating exercises of political skill and resourcefulness in the Western world. The conclave that elects a new pope is often the final act of a protracted consideration for the job that involves, as often as not, a choice who didn’t envision the outcome. But few men have refused what Catholics regard as a call from God. Nevertheless, we are not required to suspend our belief in human nature. Man is a political creature. Most popes are not elected by accident. Italians are masterful at politics.
Basta. Time will tell.
Roger A. McCaffrey, a Catholic publisher, is currently assisting in the launch of Ave Maria University Press in Naples, Fla.