On Saturday Pope Francis created 20 new cardinals, including 16 under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote for the next pope. It was Pope Francis’ eighth consistory, and whenever we get a new crop of Princes of the Church, several chronic misconceptions tend to head once more into the breach.
Right now, we’re in the middle of what I’ve taken to calling “World Series Week” on the Vatican beat. We tend to reserve the “Super Bowl” metaphor for transition events, i.e., the death or resignation of a pope, but this is basically the next step down in terms of significance and media interest.
Whenever the next papal election occurs, in the run-up to the big vote, airwaves and column inches will be full of traditional wisdom about conclaves, often expressed in familiar soundbites destined to be recycled almost endlessly.
Covering the Catholic Church is a tough gig for reporters, not least because we’re often forced to be killjoys. We’re forever put in the position of raining on a media parade, and such was the case again Friday with the sensational “resignation” of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich.
To sum up, for once the collective reaction to a papal health scare seems about right, which is to say, avoiding panic. For now, the interesting thing to watch may not be whether Pope Francis is up to the job, but how the job may evolve to suit what he’s up to.
It’s taken far too long to get here, with agonizing delays, chaos, confusion, and reversals of fortune along the way, not to mention accusations of fraud and cover-up. Even now that we have a final result, heated arguments over its meaning and legitimacy probably are only beginning. That’s not a summary of the 2020 U.S. election, though it easily could be. The reference instead is to the Vatican’s release today of its long-awaited report on ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick, promised more than two years ago and finally at hand.
“A foolish consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” People and institutions of all sorts channel their inner Emerson all the time, invoking iron-clad principles when they’re convenient but finding loopholes when they’re not.
Robert K. Merton, a famous American sociologist, was, by all accounts, a smart guy. Among other things, he popularized the expression “law of unintended consequences” to refer to situations when a person does something for one reason, but he or she finds that it produces all sorts of other unexpected results.