The conclave has yet to begin. But those at the assembly are said to be speaking bluntly.
Wanted: Man of God, good at languages, preferably under 75, extensive pastoral experience, no record of covering up clerical sex abuse, deeply spiritual and tough as old boots.
That is the emerging profile of the man many of his fellow cardinals would like to see succeed Benedict XVI as the next pope.
On March 4 the princes of the church began a series of preliminary “general congregations,” the first step to electing a pontiff. They have much to discuss. On Friday they fixed Tuesday, March 12, for the start of the conclave, the electoral college made up of cardinals below the age of 80, which will choose the next pope.
The papal spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that the members of the general congregation had not been “hurrying things.” The preliminary assembly heard 51 speeches. As Lombardi tactfully put it, the cardinals spoke “freely and with rather effective color.” That is code for candor, even bluntness. Given the crises the church faces, delicacy might seem remiss.
The procedure is usually to identify the main threats facing the church, then find the cardinal best able to deal with them. Of the subjects cited by Lombardi, half concerned the Vatican itself. Deeper questions include the loss of religious faith in Europe, the challenge from evangelical Protestantism in Latin America, persecution of Christians in the Middle East and clerical sex abuse.
None is as pressing, however, as the turmoil in the Roman Curia, the church’s central administration. Benedict, intellectually fearless yet personally timid, was unable to keep order. Many in Rome believe that was the true reason for his departure.
The Curia has become a battleground. Prelates loyal to the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, are at furious odds with papal diplomats who resented the appointment of a secretary of state with no knowledge of their business. Other feuds abound. The leaking of documents by the pope’s butler, though apparently motivated by genuine dismay at decisions made in the Vatican, was entwined with this venomous squabbling.
The findings of an investigative panel of three cardinals will cast a long shadow over the conclave.
Last month, an Italian newspaper wrote of a ring of gay prelates, some being blackmailed by outsiders. In the first general congregation, three cardinals — reportedly all Europeans — demanded access to the findings, in vain.
Secrecy fosters suspicions that the contents are dreadful.
The episode may also strengthen the resolve of the mainly English-speaking and German-speaking cardinals who want a vigorous pope to clean up the Curia.
Among those watching the decisionmaking in Rome with apprehension are Catholic priests around the world. In many countries, their declining and aging ranks are beset by the revelation of past scandals, both at the parish level and in higher realms. This week Scotland’s most senior cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, admitted that his sexual conduct at times “has fallen below the standards” expected of him. A radio interview by his former counterpart in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, marked by a nervous laugh and opaque language, compounded the ire.
Victims of sexual abuse believe that the reckoning has barely begun. They want not only proper investigation, but also apologies, punishments and, in some cases, cash. For them Benedict exemplified the secretive, cautious response that aggravated the misconduct. It will be hard for any new pope to meet their expectations.
Along with frustrations about church politics and shame about misconduct, attendance at mass is falling. In America it has declined by more than a third since 1960. In mostly Catholic Italy, only 39 percent attend on a monthly basis.
Parish life goes on, however. Timothy Radcliffe, former head of the Dominican order, says that priests are mostly happy, albeit overstretched. After a peak of 110 vocations — ordinations of new priests — in England and Wales in 1996, the figure dropped to a mere 19 in 2006. This year, however, 38 ordinations are expected.
In a reversal of the old days of Western missionaries, many were born overseas. The Rev. Stephen Wang, of Allen Hall seminary in London, counts men from Africa, India and Australia in the seminary’s 2013 cohort of 54.
Movements such as Youth 2000 and World Youth Day encourage vocations through what has been called “evangelical Catholicism,” Wang says, in which the faith is “more confident” about presenting itself. Traditionalist groups such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King attract younger members.
In some respects, the woes of the church in the West seem far away from parts of the world where it is thriving. In a leafy sanctuary from the heat and frenzy of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, the Rev. Aurel da Silva sits under a tree on the tidy front lawn of a monastery. On the wall behind him hangs an oversize portrait of Michel Nielly, who a half-century ago established it as a beachhead for the Dominican order. Today it houses some 30 seminarians from across the region, and its small wooden chapel attracts Abidjan’s elites for mass.