If I have learned anything about mainstream journalism it is this: Editors love partisan political horse races.
This framework is, alas, also used when journalists ponder vacancy signs on the Throne of St. Peter in Rome.
In this kind of contest, scribes almost always (they don’t have to do this, of course) decide that there is a good horse and a bad horse. Most of the time, the “good” candidate is defined as the one who is in favor of “reform.”
* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”
* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …
* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …
* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”
* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices.
Now, who gets to define what is and what is not an “abuse,” an “evil course of life,” an “injustice” or a “malpractice”?
That would be the players behind the horse race who are trusted by newsroom leaders and owners.
Thus, before we get to this weekend’s “think piece,” let’s pause and look back to a 2013 speech at Villanova University (YouTube at the top of this post) by the former, now disgraced, cardinal Theodore McCarrick. At the 18-minute mark or so, this media-maven Vatican player discusses his behind-the-scenes networking activity ahead of the conclave that gave the world Pope Francis.
So often the kingmaker in American Catholic life, McCarrick describes a meeting with an “influential Italian gentleman” at the North American College in Rome. This took place as cardinals were preparing for the conclave. This transcript at Roma Locuta Est is long, but loaded with hints and information:
We sat down. This is a very brilliant man, a very influential man in Rome. We talked about a number of things. He had a favor to ask me for [when I returned] back home in the United States.
But then [the influential Italian] said, ‘What about Bergoglio?’
And I was surprised at the question.
I said, ‘What about him?’
He said, ‘Does he have a chance?’
I said, ‘I don’t think so, because no one has mentioned his name. He hasn’t been in anyone’s mind. I don’t think it’s on anybody’s mind to vote for him.”
He said, ‘He could do it, you know.’
I said, ‘What could he do?’
He said, ‘[Bergoglio] could reform the Church. If we gave him five years, he could put us back on target.’
I said, ‘But, he’s 76.’
He said, ‘Yeah, five years. If we had five years, the Lord working through Bergoglio in five years could make the Church over again.’
I said, ‘That’s an interesting thing.’
He said, ‘I know you’re his friend.’
I said, ‘I hope I am.’
He said, ‘Talk him up.’
I said, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens. This is God’s work.’
The candidate being discussed is, of course, is the Jesuit from Italy (by way of Argentine), Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would emerge as Pope Francis.
What favor is the Italian seeking from McCarrick?
I take this (a) as a reference to the kingmaker debts owed to Uncle Ted by strategic American Catholic princes wearing red hats. However, (b) McCarrick also was a powerful and trusted voice among elite-zip-code journalists who became known, over the years, as “Team Ted.”
What does, “Talk him up” mean, in terms of horse-race politics? That’s pretty obvious, methinks.
This brings us to a Religion News Service analysis with this double-decker headline:
Getting ready for the next conclave
Pope Francis’ cardinal electors do not know each other well; they should take their time to elect a pope.
The Big Idea, of course, is that Pope Francis has been preparing for the next conclave — by selecting cardinals from around the world who, one must assume, share his vision of the future of Roman Catholicism.
It’s hard to know if he will need the cardinals who, in the past, were part of the red-hat wing of Team Ted. But this RNS piece still contains some interesting passages. Such as this:
With his latest consistory on Sept. 30, he will have appointed 99, or 72%, of the 137 cardinals under 80 years of age, who are allowed to vote in a papal conclave. Francis has broken with tradition in these appointments by ignoring archbishops who occupy sees that traditionally had cardinals — Milan, Venice and Los Angeles among them — and instead appointing bishops from little-known dioceses around the world, such as Mongolia, Sudan and San Diego.
In making cardinals, Francis has looked for bishops who are pastoral and close to the poor and marginalized. These men are firmly committed to the social teaching of the church, without necessarily being liberal on hot-button issues of concern to progressive Catholics in the West.
Because of these choices, Francis has dramatically changed the geographical breakdown of the electoral college. At the 2013 conclave that elected him, 24% of the electors were Italian. After the September consistory, only 11% will be Italian. …
Pope Francis, technically, not Italian — but his actions and priorities have been very European.
The winners under Francis have been Asia, whose representation in the consistory has risen to 17% from 9%, and Africa, up to 14% from 9%. All together, the Global South will now make up half the electors. Surprisingly, Latin America’s percent of the electors has remained almost the same. …
Now that Francis’ electors will control at least 72% of the next conclave, many presume they will vote for continuity and elect someone like Francis. This certainly happened after the death of John Paul with the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
The big question, of course, is whether the cardinals from Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the Global South are men whose views resemble the Catholics in their pews or those of today’s Vatican powers that be. Consider the new cardinals from Africa and contrast them with the previous cardinals from the growing churches on that continent.
There’s one more post-Team Ted passage to read. To be blunt, the media landscape has changed:
Cardinals also turn to the media for information, which could be dangerous with an ideologically divided media landscape. There are even rumors that conservative groups are doing opposition research on cardinals they don’t like. Watch for stories about how a cardinal is a bad manager, unsophisticated in theology, bad at dealing with sex abuse or even of questionable morals.
As in every election, the cardinal electors will have to sift through the noise and make judgments about who they can trust.
The “rumors,” of course, will clash with the pro-reform material published vis the establishment newsrooms that, in previous decades, leaned heavily on Uncle Ted and his disciples for insights and information.
In terms of journalism, who will pick the “good” horses — the “reform” horses, the “close … to the marginalized” horses — in the next race? Are the most powerful journalists still talking to the “brilliant,” “influential” men in Rome?