Conservative thinkers dominate those who vote for Pope

To talk of Vatican divisions and factions in the choosing of the next pope misses a central point, David Perlich explains. The last two popes stacked the deck, selecting doctrinal conservatives after their own heart for the College of Cardinals.

Not many liberals in current College of Cardinals

A clutch of cardinals, including Cardinals Rivera Carrera (R) and Javier Lozano Barragan (C) of Mexico chat in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, following the last general audience of Pope Benedict XVI. (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

It's unlike any election you've ever heard of.

A conclave has no official candidates. There are no parties, no party platforms, no manifestos, no pledges, not even any stump speeches or slogans.

There are also no factory tours, baby kissing, robo-calls and certainly no banners or bunting.

Nevertheless, it is an election. And all elections cause division and consternation. But speaking of "factions" within the Cardinals of the Catholic Church has lost much of its meaning.

The College of Cardinals for the upcoming conclave will be composed of 115 electors (as of this writing).

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That's 115 men from diverse parts of the world, with their own nuanced values, and their own concepts of spiritual and temporal leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

That said, John Paul II and Benedict XVI stacked the deck.

Between them, the last two popes appointed every cardinal who will vote in the conclave.

As both popes could reasonably be described as doctrinal conservatives, it means a certain form of orthodoxy, some might say rigidity, exists amongst those who will soon cast their ballots into the golden urn.

Voting blocs, relic of previous conclaves

In previous conclaves, it was possible to describe factions, even voting blocs, within the College of Cardinals.

These divisions usually revolved around the implementation or interpretation of the reforms of Vatican II, the gathering of the world's bishops in Rome in the mid-1960s that discussed the role of the Church in the modern world and led to changes such as the end of the Latin mass.

Pope Benedict blesses the faithful for the last time on Thursday, from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

Sometimes, those divisions were relatively apparent, even if only quietly discussed over late-night dinners in darkened restaurants along the quiet side streets near the Vatican.

In the early- and mid-twentieth century, a split emerged between the so-called progressives and conservatives, even if knowledge of it came only after the fact, and in the form of well-founded rumour.

But those times have, for the most part, passed. The spectrum has shrunk.

Long gone are the days when cardinals could be described as being deeply divided over issues like "modernity," "democracy" or "the Latin Mass."

Long piled onto the dustbin of history are divisions such as French cardinals against Italian, or when Austrian archdukes attempted to veto specific candidates who were too "pro-Slav."

This time, it looks like most everyone is on the same playing field, and there are few obvious divisions.

Shades of beige

At best, it is possible to describe some cardinals as more moderate, and some as more conservative, which, compared to the divisions of yesteryear, looks rather like shades of beige.

With the death of the highly respected Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in 2012, the "great voice" of the more Progressive wing of the church was silenced.

If one puts any credence into reports that have widely circulated in the Italian press (which quote an anonymous cardinal's diary), Martini actually gave Cardinal Josef Ratzinger — who became Pope Benedict XVI — a serious run for his money in the early voting during the last conclave.

Martini was a candidate with reform ideals that many others could get behind.

Eight years later, those divisions seem to have passed.

Rather than opposing value sets, the nuance between conservatives and moderates within the Catholic Church is more likely found in what a particular cardinal thinks the Church should be focusing on.

In the broadest of terms, moderates may want the focus more on social justice issues, especially economic social justice and a greater role for the laity.

Conservatives may be more concerned with maintaining traditional values, and the Church's stance on issues such as marriage and abortion.

Many of the cardinals are undoubtedly dynamic, extraordinarily articulate and deeply reasoned men. Some have highly developed thoughts on the future of the Church around the world.

But given the complexity of geographic, linguistic and experiential differences amongst those within the College of Cardinals, no singular visions appear to have come to the fore.

Tranquility of vision?

There is an old Roman expression: "Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know."

And that's what makes trying to understand the nuanced undercurrents of any division within the current College of Cardinals miserably difficult to parse.

The pope has gone. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone seals the door of the apartment of Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Thursday. (Osservatore Romano / Reuters)

This is in no small measure because there are no serious knockout candidates.

The upcoming conclave has its "papabili" — those cardinals who are realistic candidates — but unlike Ratzinger or Martini in 2005, there are no big, obvious, divisive personalities to rally behind.

There may also be no candidates who offer truly diverse visions for the way ahead.

That is not to say there are not some highly controversial points on which cardinals disagree.

Certainly the recent statement by British Cardinal Keith O'Brien that priests should be allowed to marry was the Vatican's version of a "shocker story."

So was the very public dispute between Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (Austria) and Cardinal Angelo Sodano (Italy) over the particular handing of a particular sexual abuse case, which required an intervention from the pope himself.

But such public events make news because they are highly unusual.

Many in the Church would likely praise the uniformity of vision within the College of Cardinals, describing it as a sign of consensus and agreement, even tranquility of vision.

Still, during the speeches and discussions the cardinals will have in the General Congregation before the conclave begins, there is always the possibility that someone will step up and wow everyone with his particular vision for the future of the Church.

That could create something for a true faction to form around.