In the days between the death of Pope John Paul II and the start of the conclave to elect the new Pope, the world's media (and bookmakers) speculated intensely on the papabile. Cardinals from Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria and Italy were all listed as credible candidates. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was neither completely discounted, nor rated highly by many commentators – being a choice liable to &ldquoalienate progressives”.
And yet, his election was the result of one of the shortest conclaves in Papal history. The result, according to veteran Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic ReporterJohn L. Allen Jr., author of both a biography of Joseph Ratzinger as well as the newly published The Rise of Benedict XVI, was due to the 'funeral effect'.
&ldquoThat is the cumulative effect of all those events that took place between the death of the Pope on April 2nd and the election of the new Pope on April 18th,” explains Allen. &ldquoThose long lines of people queing up to see the Pope, the overwhelming media coverage, the turnout at the funeral mass, collectively brought it home to the Cardinals that they were electing the successor to a Titan, and they had to elect someone who was not going to be crushed by the weight of that comparison. So it raised the bar considerably in terms of the kind of man they had to find. That’s what transformed Ratzinger from a plausible but long shot character, to whom there were plenty of alternatives, into something like an overall favourite.”
According to Allen, it was the most important factor, but he acknowledges in his book that there were other factors at play. One, for example, being that for many of the Cardinals involved in the conclave, Ratzinger was one of the few of their fellow Cardinals with whom they had had significant personal contact. In essence, he was a known quantity. A voluntary press blackout pre-conclave, instituted by the Cardinals as much to protect against undue influence from media-savvy Cardinals from the developed world, tended to benefit Ratzinger further. If he was a known quantity, the press blackout, unwittingly perhaps, deprived other Cardinals of the opportunity to present a candidacy.
Speculation that, for the first time in Church history, a non-European would be elected came to nought. Was Benedict XVI's election then a signal of the Church's priorities? Does it suggest that the focus of this Pontificate will be primarily on the position of the Church in Europe? &ldquoI think the consensus in that group [the Cardinals] was that right now, the most significant challenge the Church faces, is in the developed west, and above all in Europe,” responds Allen, “with what Ratzinger has defined as the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. I think the choice of Ratzinger as Pope, to some extent, was a choice to help the Church get its house in order in Europe.”
The Vatican correspondent, though, is quick to point out that, based on his discussions with Cardinals, this doesn't rule out a non-European Papacy in the future: &ldquoThey’re certainly not excluding the idea, in fact most Cardinals you talk to would say that some day, in the not-too-distant future, we will have a Pope from the South”. One day, but not right now.
The Culture Wars – Battle Plans
Less than two months after Benedict XVI's election, Italian citizens were presented with a referendum to cancel a number of clauses from a controversial law regulating assisted procreation. The law, 40/2004, was met with broad approval from the Vatican, particularly in relation to clauses banning the use of embryonic stem cells for scientifc research.
Rightly or wrongly, this referendum was seen by many as the first clash of Benedict's Papacy. The first significant battle of a culture war waged against the so-called 'dictatorship of relativism'.
Certainly the Church was heavily involved in the campaign to defend the law, a move which brought into the spotlight the question of the extent to which the Church may attempt to influence voting in a nominally secular Republic.
Was the Church's campaign in Italy a blueprint for future interventions? &ldquoYes absoutely,” confirms Allen. &ldquoHis first book to come out since he has become Pope [it was written while he was Cardinal], is called The Europe of Benedict: In the crisis of cultures. The thesis of this book is that what is profoundly dangerous about European culture today is that religion and morality have been relegated to the private sphere, and they are no longer seen to have any legitimate public impact. He challenges that on principle. This is going to be a robust and no-holds barred Papacy that makes the argument that there are certain objective truths about the human person that have to have consequences in public policy and civil law. What you saw in Italy was in a sense the first skirmish in what will be a much broader cultural conflict.