It’s easy for the media to portray the Vatican system as an archaic, absolute monarchy. The pope is like some Chinese mandarin locked away in his palace, cut off from the real world. The curia is like the politburo, scheming in secret behind the Kremlin/Vatican walls. The Catholic Church worldwide is portrayed as an antique aristocracy made up of celibate men who pulls the strings of power while sitting pretty in their palaces and country clubs.
The reality is of a system that has been updated and reformed while still continuing the tradition of the ages. The system for electing the new pope is a good example. In a few weeks’ time about 115 men will gather for the conclave. This page has a very clear explanation of who they are, who can vote and why. These men come from every corner of the globe. They have spent their lives in the church and bring t to the Sistine Chapel a vast reservoir of experience, wisdom and knowledge of the world. Not only are they highly educated, but they have real experience in leadership in the real world.
It’s sometimes imagined that the cardinals are all old, Italian guys who have been loitering around the Vatican and dining at nice Roman restaurants in red robes waiting to be called for the next conclave. Not so. Most of them are working archbishops managing large urban archdioceses. They have risen to their posts usually from other diocese in their countries. Before that they held responsible jobs as seminary rectors, cathedral deans, vicars general, church diplomats, theology professors or canon lawyers. They not only bring their education and experience, but they bring the history and culture–the needs and longings of their people from every culture, ethnic group and race from every continent of the world.
When we stop and reflect, the conclave of Catholic cardinals really is an amazing group of men, and the fact that they all gather in one mind for one purpose for a few days to select a new pope is, in itself, a remarkable achievement. Is this process democratic? It is democratic inasmuch as a two thirds majority is required for an election and that they continue to vote until they get that majority.
It is not democratic in the sense of there being one vote for every Catholic in the world. However, the process is representative. It is representative because, when it works, the cardinal is not voting for what he wants, but what is best for his archdiocese, his country, his people and for the good of the whole church.
Any reading of the history of the papacy has revealed that the selection or election of new popes has often been a stormy process. It is as if the first disciples were still quarreling about which of them would be first in the kingdom. One of the best things about the modern papacy is that it is free of the great wealth and worldly power that once attached to the papacy. To be pope is now a great burden, and any Cardinal who wants to be Pope shouldn’t be pope because he clearly doesn’t know the tremendous burdens of the job. Because being pope is such a burden the election is, ironically, much easier–who would fight to take on a job like that?
Nevertheless, there may well be disagreements and conflict until the choice is made. In the meantime it is our joy to watch and wait and pray and watch and wait and pray some more until we that moment when we can turn on the TV and hear the words, Habemus Papam!