Airlines usually upgrade cardinals to first class and offer them champagne. But when the leaders of the Roman Catholic church fly into Rome’s Fiumicino airport this week for the funeral of the former pope Benedict XVI, they may well forgo the fizz as a sign of their mourning. It’s hard to imagine, though, that they will refrain from engaging in the whispers and the politicking that is so typical of a gathering of top Catholic prelates. The funeral will be a time to remember and mourn Benedict – but the plotting that will take place may resemble an episode of Succession.
Benedict was a renowned theologian and an enforcer of Catholic doctrine who earned the nickname “God’s rottweiler” for his pursuit of those he thought errant. He was a hero to conservative Catholics, but he will be most remembered for his dramatic resignation in 2013 – the first pope in 600 years to quit rather than die in office. He pleaded physical frailty. “Having before God examined my conscience over and over, I have come to the certain knowledge that my strength, due to the burdens of age, is no longer suitable for properly administering the Petrine office,” he wrote, but he lasted almost another 10 years before dying at the age of 95 on New Year’s Eve.
When a pope dies in office, cardinals come from across the globe to bury him and elect his successor. This time, of course, there is no need to do so. There is already a pope – Francis, the man picked in 2013 to succeed him. But when he leads Benedict’s funeral on 5 January, the cardinals may well wonder if they will be back in Rome soon for another conclave. At 86, Francis himself is already physically frail. He lost part of a lung when young, had bowel surgery in 2021 and since May has used a wheelchair in public. He recently quipped that a wheelchair was not an issue for a pope – “One governs with the head, not the knee” – but also revealed that he had a signed resignation letter, deposited with the Vatican’s secretary of state, that could be accepted if he became incapacitated.
There are some in the Roman Catholic church who would dearly love another pope to be elected very soon. While Francis and Benedict might not have been quite the buddies they appeared to become in the humorous Netflix account of their relationship, 2019’s The Two Popes, they did manage a cordial engagement. But that cordiality is not shared by everyone.
Certain followers of Benedict who asserted that all Catholics should be utterly loyal to a pope when he sat on the throne of Peter have shown no such fidelity to Francis, and have constantly criticised his efforts at reform. They particularly objected to his reversal of Benedict’s relaxation on the use of the old Latin rite mass, which had effectively been banned from the 1960s, and were horrified by Francis’s acceptance of indigenous culture blending into Catholic ritual. Matters reached a head in 2019 when Francis called a synod in Rome on the Amazon region, and agreed statues of the Pachamama, a figure described as both a native fertility image and Our Lady of the Amazon, could be displayed during mass. Two arch-conservative men took the statues and threw them in the Tiber river, saying “they do not belong in a Catholic church”.
These are extreme examples of the divisions in the Roman Catholic church, divisions that can lead to healthy dialogue over the importance of both tradition and change, or at least an evolution of theology. In other cases they become toxic.
Benedict will be remembered for striving to pull the Roman Catholic church back towards tradition and even the restoration of discarded ritual, such as the old Latin mass. He will also be remembered for his condemnation of what he called the “dictatorship of relativism”, in which definitive values are abandoned and individuals focus on satisfying their own desires.
Francis has opted for reform, striving to make the Roman Catholic church a more inclusive place that engages the laity more fully in its life. The tensions between these two notions of the church will be at the heart of any discussions about the future of a faith shared by billions around the globe.
The official line of the Roman Catholic church is that when the cardinals enter the conclave to elect a new pope, the Holy Spirit guides them in prayer to find the right candidate. He certainly gets a helping hand: there are plenty of prelates keen to ensure their man is chosen. As well as the conclave itself, there are formal gatherings before it, where issues of the day are discussed. But behind closed doors there are other sessions, too, where lobbying goes on.
In 2005, when John Paul II died, the conservatives were well-organised and encouraged the voting members of the College of Cardinals – those under 80 – to pick Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Pope Benedict XVI. When Benedict quit eight years later, the liberals were better organised. One group they targeted were the cardinals from developing countries. A reception was held for Commonwealth cardinals in the first week of March 2013, in the British embassy to the Holy See, where Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the then archbishop of Westminster, addressed them. He spoke about his good friend Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, advocating that the Argentinian become pope. On 13 March, the man who took as his papal name Francis stood on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, and joked the cardinals had gone to the ends of the Earth to find the new pope. They had picked Bergoglio.
Who will the cardinals elect next time? We Catholics in the pew, whether conservatives or progressives, have to accept that cardinals are as human as the rest of us, and not averse to plotting. But maybe we should offer a prayer that the Holy Spirit may, on the next occasion, help them find someone who could be what a pope always used to be – a unifying figure.
This week, with Benedict’s funeral, the world’s attention will be on what is happening at the Vatican. But the Catholic church is so much more than that. At its best, it is not only the provider of spiritual comfort, but of vital services to people in need across the world. It runs schools and hospitals in developing countries and helps to lift people out of poverty. That needs to be the cardinals’ focus, not plotting like politicians over the future of the papacy.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of the Tablet and the author of The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy