How can an overly internationalized Sacred College be prevented from becoming the instrument of pressure groups when electing a future pope? Is it possible to reconcile both the Roman dimension of the papal ministry and the great diversity of a Catholicism whose living branches are found more and more distant from the Eternal City?
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, as a specialist, responds to all these questions, and proposes a solution rather distant from the orientations of the current pontificate.
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller is known for his outspokenness, particularly on questions of celibacy in the clergy, synods on the Amazon or the family: so many themes on which the prelate, clothed with the cardinal purple by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and now 92 years old, did not hesitate to oppose the current sovereign pontiff.
Today, it is on other grounds that the president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences marks his difference: that of the internationalization of the Sacred College - undoubtedly accelerated by the current pope - and its repercussions on the election of a future successor to Peter.
Delivering his thoughts on October 26, 2021 in a text published by the Vaticanist Sandro Magister on his web site Settimo Cielo, the high prelate sees two perverse effects in this growing phenomenon, firstly the fact that the many cardinal electors, due to their remoteness, are sorely lacking in elements to make a thoughtful choice:
“The 120 electors, insofar as they come from the periphery, often meet for the first time in the consistories preceding the conclave and so know little or nothing about the college of cardinals and therefore about the candidates, thus lacking a fundamental prerequisite for responsible voting in the conclave,” notes the cardinal.
And to evoke a second perverse effect: the dialectic which does not fail to impose itself between a centralized Curia, reputed to be bureaucratic and cold, and a Church of the peripheries, presumed more in conformity with the evangelical ideal: this tension “sometimes lived out in a rather emotional way, has a certain influence on the vote,” notes the high prelate.
History being the mistress of life, Cardinal Brandmüller recalls “that the papal ministry is linked to the episcopal see of Rome follows from the fact that the first of the Apostles suffered martyrdom and was buried in this city,” a fact that takes on essential theological importance:
“The bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch was already convinced of this back between the first and second centuries, and in his widely discussed and controversial letter to the Church of Rome he wrote that this latter presides over the “agape,” a word that should be correctly translated as “Church,” as shown by the use of the same word in the other letters of Ignatius,” he explains.
“In a similar way, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, around 200, attributed to the Church of Rome, since it was founded by Peter and Paul, a ‘potentior principalitas,’ meaning a firm preeminence.”
“The College of Cardinals, therefore, has its roots in the clergy of the city of Rome and so, starting with Nicholas II, it elects the bishop of Rome, who is at the same time also the supreme pastor of the whole Church,” sums up the cardinal. “First of all it should be remembered that the pope is not ‘also’ bishop of Rome, but the opposite is true: the bishop of Rome is also pope.”
The election originally belongs to the clergy and people of Rome. This is why the cardinals of the Sacred College are all assigned, from their creation, a titular Roman church, a “ritual fiction” which signifies their incardination in the Eternal City.
A question arises all the same: with the preponderant part in the Church, on continents which were formerly mission territories, how can this ontological bond between Rome and the Pope be reconciled with the universal aspect of the pontifical ministry which far exceeds the interests of a local Church, even the most prestigious?
Cardinal Brandmüller rejected a possible first solution, warning: “To reflect in a particular way the universal aspect of the Petrine ministry, it has been proposed that the right to vote in conclave be granted to the presidents of national episcopal conferences. But it must be forcefully reiterated that episcopal conferences in no way constitute a structural element of the Church, and that such a solution would not meet the requirements raised by the bond between the See of Peter and the city of Rome.”
The second solution - which wins the preference of the high prelate, but not necessarily that of Pope Francis, we will understand why – “would be to decouple the active (the electors) and passive (the eligible) right to vote, to a very streamlined and truly Roman college of cardinals, at the same time widening the circle of the eligible to the universal Church.”
In the eyes of the cardinal, “another advantage of this method would be that a pope could no longer so easily influence the choice of his successor by creating cardinals in a targeted manner.” On the pope’s side, it is difficult not to feel targeted by this allusion in the form of a swipe of a paw.
A solution all the more urgent as many cardinals created under the current pontificate do not have “the Rome experience”: “For a college in which the preference is to make cardinals of the heads of peripheral dioceses, it is practically impossible to carry out the aforementioned tasks adequately, even under the conditions allowed by modern communication technologies,” notes the cardinal.
In addition, given their remoteness, the probability of being absent from a future conclave due to political, climatic, or health events increases, thus “for these and other similar reasons, given the large number of cardinals who have the right to vote and at the same time the obligation to participate, an election carried out by an 'incomplete' college could be contested, with serious danger for the unity of the Church.”
“If, on the other hand, the electors were already in place because they were part of a really Roman college, there would be no need to fear such a scenario” (like the one described above).
And then there may be another problem caused by the current composition of the Sacred College, that of a possible confiscation of the election by pressure groups: “everything ends up depending on those opinion leaders, internal and external, who succeed in making their chosen candidate known to the less informed and in mobilizing their support.”
“This leads to the constitution of blocs, where individual votes are like blank proxies granted to enterprising ‘grand electors.’ These behaviors follow norms and mechanisms studied in sociology.”
“When instead the election of the pope, successor of the Apostle Peter, supreme pastor of the Church of God, is a religious event that should be governed by rules of its own.”
How can we fail to think here of the influence of the so-called “St. Gallen” group, which is no longer a mystery to any one in Rome, knowing that it had a leading role in the election of the Argentine pontiff?
And as if this were not sufficiently clear, Cardinal Brandmüller also evokes possible risks of simony which could occur when the “more or less abundant streams of money flow from rich Europe to poorer areas of the world, so that their cardinal electors in the conclave feel obliged to the donor.”
Will the current successor to Peter be sensitive to the masterful analysis of the president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences?