Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The conclave

Nothing guarantees the rapt attention of outsiders more than the idea of blanket secrecy, and no procedure better illustrates this point than a papal conclave. As the Holy Ghost gets down to business later today, the cardinals are locked in and the rest of the world is locked out. Nobody will be in a position to know what went on unless someone inside violates the oath, either deliberately or by accident. The latter possibility is real. In the long history of conclave speculation shreds of gossip, pertinent or otherwise, have drifted like swan down from domestics in particular—those who long afterwards have been either unable or unwilling to resist the wiles of the most cunning seekers of information. The lowlier the sworn official, moreover, the scrubber of loos in Santa Marta for example, the greater must be her sense that in the midst of an unremarkable life she stands witness to a great event, albeit on the outermost periphery. Would it be so surprising if afterwards she casually complained to a non-sworn collega about the length (and liveliness) of late-night discussions in the room of a cardinal who, incidentally, likes to smoke cigars, and the inconvenience therefore of having to trudge all the way up to the fourth floor well after one o’clock in the morning? She has no reason to suppose that the collega’s brother-in-law is a journalist. Then, of course, there are the politics inherent in the process itself. By their very nature, at least a good proportion of the cardinals must be possessed of hard-nosed political shrewdness or they would not be there. Nor would they have attained each of the previous rungs in those long, stout ladders of ecclesiastical preferment. The eligible voters are, of course, bound by the apostolic constitution which governs the process, but this does not mean that some of them are not busily doing their numbers. It would appear to be very unusual, even counterproductive, for anyone to be doing or seen to be doing the numbers on their own behalf, but surely not so strange for ambitious men to lobby for a “candidate,” because not to do so would be simply naïve. Someone else will certainly be doing it. Further, in a group of 115 eligible voters one should expect to discover the fullest range of human characteristics, good and bad. Not for nothing is a staff of confessors laid on in the Sistine sacristy. The cardinals will be short-tempered or placid, patient or maddened by signs of weakness in others. There is no reason to suppose that cardinals do not bear grudges, even nurture hatreds, just like anyone else—and those may go back years and years, and originate in some petty quarrel to which men naturally cling with hot resentment, even while they are fully aware of the overriding injunction to love thy neighbor. They will be worldly and holy in different measure, keenly aware of needing publicly to convey neither too much of one quality, nor too little of the other. Some will be known to be fonder of clothes or canasta than seems entirely healthy. Some will be better than others at correctly reading a balance sheet, and acting accordingly. Others will be taking blood pressure medication. They will be clever or stupid or funny or deaf or inconceivably dull. Some will be comparatively patrician veterans of diplomatic service, their manners further enhanced by having been born into an old and distinguished Argentine or Colombian family. Some will enjoy giving the impression of wholesome and unaffected affability, while others careful to polish a performance of unrivaled ascetic dogmatism. Some, with long experience of the Roman curia, will have developed the useful skill of reading upside-down over distances of ten meters or more; others will be as blind as a bat. Their Eminences will have limited opportunities to demonstrate their fluency in five languages or more, but if and when they do so will this be misconstrued as an ostentatious display? How will national or ethnic affinities affect their instinctive groupings—over meals, for example, or in more formal blocs? Is the malign influence of foreign governments or even secret intelligence organisations detectable in the subtle behavior of cardinals who for years, maybe through grim necessity, have had to navigate unscrupulous, undemocratic, or corrupt regimes, and occasionally accommodate themselves to their wishes? How on earth do you do handle or even take the measure of a solitary Vietnamese cardinal, or a Sudanese, or a Hungarian? Faced with the real possibility of the election of a wholly unacceptable candidate, will there not be some casual remark cleverly implanted in the ear of a garrulous old fool who can be relied upon innocently to spread it about so as to damage, if not thwart? And what about the mini-buses? In the polite post-ballot exodus, the cardinals’ equivalent of a scrum, which Eminences will make sure that they sit next to whom on those brief but insular rides back and forth to the Sistine Chapel, and who will be roundly shunned by those whose keenest interest is making sure that they are where the action is? And what will the drivers, also sworn, notice in the rear-view mirror, or hear muttered over their left hand shoulder? We will probably never know, and should any gossip emerge in due course and inevitably fail to satisfy the hunger of the world’s media, none of it will be at all reliable.

1 comment:

  1. A superb characterisation of the Conclave, by one who knows more than he tells. I cannot discern if there is a deliberate intention, or not, in the fact that the lowliest sworn official in this whole miasma is the one female ever mentioned in the account. How very distant are any women from this insiders’ club. Mind you, it is well to remember that many people believe the reason we witness a Conclave now at all is because of the ‘indiscretion’ of a sworn official very close indeed to the erstwhile Pope, namely his butler. No capital B on butler.