Cardinals Enter Sistine Chapel, Conclave Underway

By Tracy Wilkinson and Richard Boudreaux

Los Angeles Times

April 18, 2005

VATICAN CITY — The subtle campaign to succeed Pope John Paul II, a condensed season of hushed conversations and private reflection, gave way today in earnest to the effort to elect a new leader for the Roman Catholic Church.

Solemnly, 115 red-cloaked cardinals said Mass this morning and then gathered in a locked Sistine Chapel for a ritualistic, secret meeting known as a conclave. They will decide later today whether to cast their first ballots immediately or wait until Tuesday to begin formal voting.

During the Mass, German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, considered by some to be a front-runner as the next pope, set the tone for the conclave with a homily that urged resistance to modern forces that might dilute Christianity.

Later, inside the Sistine Chapel, Ratzinger led the cardinals in an oath of secrecy under an imposing fresco of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment." It will take 77 votes to get elected. But if there is no winner after a couple weeks, a simple majority will prevail.

"I'm just trying to put myself in God's hands and ask the Lord to help me choose the one" he selected, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said in an interview Sunday. "I look around that hall each day this week, and I say, 'The new pope is sitting here! He's sitting here!'"

Gone are the days when emperors, kings and rich families ordered up a pope and threatened cardinals with starvation, prison or worse to influence their choice. Still, the election follows rules that trace to medieval times, but were last updated by John Paul in 1996.

In public comments before imposing a gag order on themselves April 9, and in less formal conversations since, several cardinals have signaled which way they were leaning.

And then there are other hints that have burst into public view. One cardinal wrote a full-page editorial in a Catholic newspaper; another published a conveniently timed book. Supporters of still another showed up in St. Peter's Square with a huge banner promoting him.

However, several cardinals said they had not yet made their choice.

"It would sure be nice if the hand of God just came down from the ceiling and said, 'This one.' It would make life a lot easier!" Mahony said. "But that's not happening yet."

The electors' final decision will probably be based partly on the philosophical priorities and religious convictions of each participant, and partly on the persuasive powers of a few "kingmakers." Much is at stake, and the election could be quite contentious.

The Catholic Church is hugely divided, and many of its 1 billion members are seriously disaffected. There are not enough priests to tend to the faithful; former adherents are turning to other religions in many parts of the world; the church's teachings are falling on deaf ears. Catholics everywhere are watching to see in what direction the new pontiff will take them.

Going into the conclave, the papal candidate with the most support appears to be the hard-line doctrinal watchdog Joseph Ratzinger, a Bavarian-born cardinal who turned 78 on Saturday. He and his supporters advocate a "church that is not timid," and their agenda has attracted the ultraconservative order Opus Dei, which has two cardinals inside the conclave.

The Ratzinger agenda advocates a church that influences public policy, and it sees Western secularism as the greatest threat to Christianity. Ratzinger is a divisive figure, and many cardinals are uncomfortable with his orthodoxy.

"No one in the College of Cardinals has presented a complete alternative project alongside the neoconservatives' program," veteran Vatican observer Sandro Magister said. "But there is no lack of serious objections and resistance, and at the beginning of the conclave this will be turned into votes in favor of other candidates."

In one scenario that is gaining currency among Vatican watchers, the initial balloting this afternoon would be used to gauge the strength of the two rival camps: Ratzinger and the more moderate cardinals who oppose him.

By some estimates, Ratzinger may have 40 to 50 cardinals on his side. He has international prestige and is considered a theological and intellectual heavyweight. Especially for cardinals with little experience in Vatican politics, Ratzinger is an imposing figure who is easy to follow.

Cardinals who oppose Ratzinger, however, do not seem to be able to agree on a candidate. Some Vaticanisti (the journalists dedicated to full-time coverage of papal politics) suggest that liberal Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini would serve as a symbolic candidate.

Martini, much admired in progressive circles, is also 78, but is sick with a form of palsy. No longer considered pope material, he retired in 2002 as the archbishop of Milan and withdrew to the relative obscurity of Jerusalem.

Under this scenario, Ratzinger, with his negatives, would not be able to rise to the two-thirds majority required to win the election; nor would Martini. The deadlock would throw the race open — but only after the relative strength of the two camps had been measured.

Ratzinger and his supporters advocate a strong curia, the Vatican's central governing bureaucracy. John Paul concentrated authority in the curia and appointed bishops who toed the line.

Other cardinals, however, want a more democratic church, with increased decision-making powers devolved to the dioceses. In theory, a local bishop with less oversight from the Vatican could liberalize the celebration of Mass in his district, something that appeals to many U.S. Catholics.

"It is important that we have a strong pope, together with a strong episcopacy," Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium said in a news conference a few days after John Paul died. "It is a question of balance."

Moderates are also more receptive to keeping open lines of communication with other faiths. Ratzinger and other conservatives say it is more important to maintain Catholicism as a superior religion.

Although John Paul took pride in the overtures he made to Jews, Muslims and Protestants, Ratzinger asserted Catholic primacy in the 2000 document "Dominus Iesus" (Lord Jesus) and branded other Christian denominations as deficient.

Last year, Ratzinger said Turkey should not be allowed to join the European Union because, as a predominantly Muslim country, it was "in permanent conflict" with Europe.

The debate has washed over the church, with many struggling over whether fundamental differences between the two religions — whose believers are at war in parts of the world — can be bridged for the sake of dialogue and on the basis of shared moral values.

"We have to learn to dialogue with Islam," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said before John Paul's funeral. "The Catholic Church cannot be full and complete unless it is able to speak to those who are not Catholic."

And in the seventh of nine funeral Masses for the pope, presiding Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir of Lebanon on Thursday made an impassioned plea for ecumenism.

"The pope firmly believed that every human being should be accepted as a brother — his care was for the whole church, the Eastern and the Western church," said Sfeir, who at 84 is too old to vote in the conclave but remains an important figure in the Eastern Rite churches loyal to Rome.

Ratzinger and others believe that Catholicism is under siege from what they call "Christianophobia," a hatred of Christians that can only be fought by asserting Christian identity. And they see the problem as just as dire in Western Europe, with a fast-growing and religiously assertive Muslim minority.

Ratzinger's latest book, published last week, focuses on what he sees as threats to Christian identity in Europe.

For other cardinals, other issues are paramount. Especially from the developing world, a number of cardinals emphasize social justice, human rights, the war on poverty and the ravages of globalization.

The next pope "needs to be a person who shows that he and the church are at the service of humanity, especially at the service of the poorest and most excluded," Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of Sao Paolo, said upon arriving in Rome for the pope's funeral.

Because John Paul's teachings were complex and often contradictory, blocs of cardinals can claim to carry forth his ideals even as they promote opposing agendas.

At Ratzinger's side is Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, 74, the late pope's deputy as bishop of Rome and head of the Italian Bishops Conference. It was he who most clearly articulated the conservative faction's agenda, during one of the first funeral Masses for John Paul.

"This is the church that [John Paul] wanted and today continues to ask us to live," he said. "A church that doesn't bend over backwards, that isn't timid and doubted, a church that burns with the love of Christ, for the salvation of man."

Others who could step up for conservatives if Ratzinger falls away after the first round of voting include Venice Patriarch Angelo Scola, 63; Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 60; or Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, 68.

Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 71, head of the powerful Congregation of Bishops, seems to be playing to both sides. He wrote a full-page editorial in Avvenire, the official paper of the Italian Bishops Conference, to extol John Paul's devotion to prayer — and reaffirm his own closeness to the late pontiff.

From the opposite camp, Martini's followers would take their cue from him. A likely candidate would be Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Milan, who is frequently mentioned as a potential pope.

Tettamanzi, 71, like the also-popular Brazilian Hummes, 70, has the same combination of conservative theology and social activism that characterized John Paul's outlook.

The Belgian Danneels, 71, whose fans unfurled a banner in St. Peter's Square proclaiming "Godfried for Pope," is considered a dark-horse moderate candidate.

And other "outsiders" who might emerge as the putative front-runners and cancel each other out include Jose da Cruz Policarpo, 69, of Portugal; Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62; and Ivan Dias, 69, of India.

When he amended the conclave rules in 1996, John Paul allowed for election of the pope by a simple majority if several rounds of voting failed. A polarizing candidate with a sizable following could hold out for that final round and win, but the conclave would drag on for about two weeks, creating an impression of rancor and division — something the Vatican does not want.