RNS has this story by David Gibson – it’s the best summary I’ve seen of the various reactions to Pope Francis from conservatives: “Pope Francis is unsettling – and dividing – the Catholic right.” I see they quote some guy named Jeffrey Tucker, among others.

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I’m reading Andreas Englisch, Franziscus: Zeichen der Hoffnung (“Francis: Sign of Hope”) these days. Englisch is said to be one of the top German Vaticanista, but as far as I known not too well known to English speakers. He is gossipy and tends to present his speculation as factual reporting – which is to say I enjoy him immensely.

In Englisch’s telling, this guy from Buenos Aires was the bête noire of the Italians and the curial cardinals, known for years to be a royal pain in the neck. When Bergoglio started attracting votes, sweat broke out on the brow of Bertone (how does Englisch know that detail?) Surely it can’t be. Surely the dislike of the Roman curia would not be so strong among the cardinal electors that they would even consider such a horror from Argentina. Bertone’s efforts became frantic to rally support for someone – anyone – but Bergoglio. It was supposed to be an Italian, but if they couldn’t get Scola, they could compromise on Scherer (from Latin America, but at least a European). In vain – as the name “Bergoglio” echoed repeatedly through the Sistine, as he got more votes even than Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave – an unspeakable catastrophe came to pass. Everything the curia wanted was lying in ruins.

Back in 2005, it seems that continuity was the goal of the cardinal electors. The entire world was mourning the passing of a magnificent hero, John Paul the Great. The crowds were chanting Subito santo (a saint immediately) in St. Peter’s Square. Who would best carry forward the vision of JP2? Ratzinger was known to be the man behind the throne, and so he was the one.

The cardinal electors voted in, in broad strokes, the man who would continue in the path of JP2, without necessarily voting for all his particular views on liturgy, his idiosyncratic theory about the hermeneutic of continuity, his hankering for the pre-Vatican II Mass and his rather one-sided and off-balance view of what Vatican II really meant. All that just came with.

2013 was different, very different. Was the vote a referendum on Ratzinger? Was Bergoglio the anti-Benedict, and is that what the cardinals wanted?

Yes and no, I would say. Then as now, liturgy was probably not the main question on the minds of the cardinal electors. It’s probably hard for Pray Tell readers to fathom, but some cardinals no doubt find the Vatican Bank scandal and Vatileaks to be more pressing questions than what style of chausible and crosier the celebrant uses and whether it’s EP1 in Latin or EP2 in vernacular. The cardinals didn’t vote out Benedict’s liturgical views and vote in simplicity (and tackiness) – at least not directly.

It seems very likely, though, that the cardinal electors were responding to the severe problems that overtook the curia under Benedict’s watch – not all of them his doing, but all of them his responsibility. The cardinals had to sense, as we all did, that the Catholic Church had a massive worldwide PR problem, that the Roman curia was the laughingstock of the world and the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes. The Vatican seemed pathetically unable to respond to scandals, to speak to the modern world with credibility. Someone in the Vatican bank (I have this second hand) said last November that Benedict’s handling of the bank scandal was so dithering that if he didn’t pass away within the year, he suspected someone would assassinate him.

I wonder how much the cardinals also sensed that Benedict was divisive, that his ministry was demoralizing and depressing not just to liberals, but even to moderates in full-time church ministry. (Think new English Missal.) I don’t know how much the cardinals sensed this – they move in very different circles than I do.

Be that as it may, the cardinals clearly wanted a change, a break with the past. They knew that the church needed a better image, something less stuffy and antiquated and irrelevant and out of touch. They needed someone to shake things up. I have the distinct impression that, of the 115 available candidates, Bergoglio was the biggest contrast to Benedict available, and that is a big part of why the cardinals chose him.

I wonder how much the cardinals realized how different the style would be under Bergoglio. I wonder if there now is any “buyers’ remorse” among some of them. We’ll probably never know.

Yes, 2013 was a referendum on Benedict. Not on his entire liturgical program per se. But certainly on his overall style. After elegance and erudition and depth (and exotic pretentiousness), we now have zip and zest (and sloppy, imprecise language). As it turns out, a massive change in liturgical style comes along with this.

It will be interesting to see what all comes next.


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