NEW YORK (RNS) Was there a secret plot to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the papal conclave last year?
Conservative Catholics have found a conspiracy theory to explain how a relatively liberal pope was elected.
The furor stems from a behind-the-scenes account of the March 2013 conclave, presented in a new book about Pope Francis titled “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”
In the last chapter of the biography, which focuses on Bergoglio’s early life in Argentina and career as a Jesuit, author Austen Ivereigh delivers an insider account of how a group of cardinals who wanted a reformer pope quietly sought to rally support for Bergoglio in the days leading up to the conclave.
The problem is: isn’t it normal to rally support for your favorite candidate?
Ivereigh called Francis’ boosters “Team Bergoglio.” They were led by reform-minded European churchmen like Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of England, who Ivereigh once worked for, and German prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has become a trusted theological adviser to Francis.
At one point, Ivereigh writes that members of “Team Bergoglio” sought the Argentine cardinal’s “assent” that he would not refuse the papacy if the voting turned his way.
Why would he refuse assent? Is he supposed to refuse assent? The pope before him didn’t refuse assent when he was elected.
During the 2005 conclave, Bergoglio reportedly refused to take up the papacy when he was running second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually be elected Pope Benedict XVI.
However, in 2013, after the resignation of Benedict, Bergoglio “said that he believed that at this time of crisis for the Church no cardinal could refuse if asked,” writes Ivereigh.
In conclaves, cardinals often signal whether they would refuse or go along with an election, if it happened.
While overt politicking is strongly discouraged, and conclave rules expressly forbid dealmaking, cardinals often coalesce in camps behind one contender or another.
When Ivereigh’s book was published last month (he personally presented a copy to Francis), media accounts of the politics of the conclave prompted some to question whether Bergoglio himself was involved by giving the go-ahead, and whether that could undermine the legitimacy of his election.
But how could a pope give the “go-ahead” for his own election? He’s elected by others, not by himself.
Regardless, Murphy-O’Connor’s press secretary wrote a letter to a British newspaper saying that no approach had been made to Bergoglio seeking his assent.
On Dec. 1st, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, issued a statement saying the cardinals cited “have expressly denied this description of events, both in terms of the demand for a prior consent by Cardinal Bergoglio and with regard to the conduct of a campaign for his election.”
However, Ivereigh said he stands by his reporting, but he regretted phrasing the episode to make it seem that Bergoglio had been approached about being a candidate and gave his backers encouragement.
“That never happened and I am sorry that I gave the impression that’s what happened,” Ivereigh told Religion News Service. “I think the whole chapter makes clear that he never had any role at all in his own election.”
Ivereigh said he was trying to show that as opposed to the 2005 conclave, Bergoglio’s supporters in 2013 “were convinced he wouldn’t resist his election.”
“The conclave rules do not prevent cardinals from urging other cardinals to vote for a particular person,” he added. “And indeed that is exactly what happens. That is part of the discernment that happens in a papal election.”
Ivereigh said he will be changing the wording of one paragraph in future editions of the book to clarify Bergoglio’s role.
Whether that will satisfy the critics is unclear.