By Thomas J. Reese
Special to The Washington Post
Next month, 117 cardinals from across the globe will gather inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, invoke the Holy Spirit and elect a pope to replace Benedict XVI, who’s resigning at the end of this month. Behind closed doors, cut off from the outside world, they will choose a leader who will have an impact on not only the Catholic Church but the entire planet. Let’s look at some of the misconceptions about how the cardinals will select the latest successor to Saint Peter.
1. Pope Benedict resigned, rather than remain in office until death, so he could influence the cardinals to elect someone like him.
In Washington, we tend to be suspicious of the explanations politicians give for anything, but in the case of the pope’s resignation, the explanation — his deteriorating health — appears to be accurate. Benedict recognizes that he is no longer up to the job, and he should be honored for giving up power and position for the good of the church. He is moving out of Rome after he steps down to avoid the appearance of trying to influence the election. “He will not interfere in any way,” a Vatican spokesman said the day after the announcement.
So how will the cardinals decide? Each will look for someone who agrees with the cardinals’ values and vision for the church. He will also want someone with whom he will have a good, friendly relationship. Finally, since all politics is local, each cardinal wants someone who will be well received in his country. Americans want someone who understands the sex abuse crisis; Nigerians want someone who understands Islam.
The cardinals realize that this election will be one of the most important things they ever do. One pope, Felix IV (526-30), tried to influence the selection of his successor; the Roman Senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope’s successor during his lifetime.