Does the Holy Spirit Choose the Pope?

God gave us the Holy Spirit, but he also gave us free will.

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The dome of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

The long-awaited papal conclave in Rome officially began when the cardinals chanted an ancient hymn, called Veni, Sancte Spiritus. One of the most solemn of Catholic chants, it is used infrequently, and means “Come, Holy Spirit.” With this hymn, the cardinal-electors pray for the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the “Third Person” of the Trinity, or more commonly, God’s spirit, to help them in their deliberations.

But does the Holy Spirit choose the pope? If so, how does that work?

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Ironically, one of the most famous comments about the actions of the Spirit in a conclave came from the person who is now the Pope Emeritus. In 1997, when asked on Bavarian television whether or not the Spirit chooses the pope, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger answered:

“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope…I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

Then the German theologian got to the heart of the matter: “There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”

I’ll say.  It’s difficult to read the long history of the Catholic Church and not come to that conclusion. Two examples of “not-so-holy” popes will suffice. The first is the Pope Emeritus’s namesake, Benedict IX (1032–1048) a thoroughly corrupt pope whom St. Peter Damian described as “feasting on immorality.” The second, Alexander VI (1492–1503) a Borgia pope, who with his several mistresses and children acted, well, like the stereotypical Renaissance Borgia. Did the Holy Spirit choose them for pope? I doubt it.

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Then how does the Spirit work?

Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides our actions and can help lead us make good decisions. This can happen in several ways. We believe that the Holy Spirit works first through Scripture, that is, through the Old Testament and, especially, through life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as recorded by the four Gospel writers in the New Testament. (The writings of St. Paul play a part here as well.) Thus, we learn about the right ways to act by reading, above all, the life of Jesus and following his commands. Throughout its 2000 year history, the church has also taught certain ways of acting in particular areas that guide us and inform our conscience, and Catholics believe that this tradition is overseen by the Holy Spirit. An “informed conscience” is one that is not only free but also nourished by Scripture and tradition. Thus, the Holy Spirit helps in moral decision-making.

In other times, when the choice is not between morality and immorality, but between “two goods,” as theologians say, the Spirit can act by inclining our hearts towards decisions that seem more in accord with God’s will for us. And what is God’s will? That we lead loving and generous lives. Catholics believe that the Spirit will help us choose paths that are for the benefit of ourselves and the community. To take one example, we choose to go to a funeral of a relative and give up two tickets to a coveted concert or sporting event because it “feels right.” That “small still voice” that the Old Testament talked about still helps to guide us.

An important qualification: we are free to listen or not listen to that voice, and act or not act on it. God gives us free will. We are never “forced” to make a decision, moral or not.

The process of listening to the Holy Spirit, often called “discernment,” is more art than a science. And it takes practice. But most people versed in Christian spirituality, myself included, believe that a person can gradually begin to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit in his or her life. St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, said that the voice of the Spirit consoles, encourages and strengthens; while the voice that comes from elsewhere causes anxiety, worry, fear. Sometimes when I’m counseling people I say, “Listen to what gives you a sense of hope; ignore what leads you to despair.” In time, sometimes by inadvertently choosing the wrong path and seeing where it leads, a person can learn better to recognize that “small, still voice” within. It has the sound of authenticity and the ring of truth, and it leads to life-giving choices.

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Everyone, cardinals included, know the basic requirements for picking a pope: a person who is holy, an effective evangelizer and someone who can manage a multinational organization. At the same time, there are the more practical concerns, equally well known: the sexual abuse crisis, the feeling in many parts of the West that the church is irrelevant, mismanagement in the Vatican curia.

As I see it, the Holy Spirit can move the cardinals to choose those persons who are most able to meet these needs and respond to the “signs of the times.” How can Catholics think otherwise? Jesus Christ promised to be with the church “until the end of the age,” and guides it through the Spirit. “We believe in the Holy Spirit,” say Catholics every Sunday. And we believe that whoever is chosen, the Spirit will offer him guidance.

Here’s the rub: Each of the cardinals, devoted men of the church who recognize that voting in a conclave may be the most important thing they do as cardinals, desire what’s best for the church. (In case they forget, they are obliged to say as they cast their ballot, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”) But since they may disagree on “what’s best,” their choices for pope will differ. Other, more human, considerations may also enter into their discernment. (Which candidate do I know the best? Who will take an interest in my country? In my Vatican office?) None of us, cardinals included, are perfect conduits of the Holy Spirit — only Jesus was. So, as I said, human considerations may intervene.

So we listen, but imperfectly. Cardinal Ratzinger was right: it’s false to say that the Spirit will simply dictate to each cardinal what name to write down on the ballot.

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Finally, a word about the various “factions” or “camps” within the Vatican that are increasingly coming to the fore. When I ran a book club several years ago in a Jesuit parish in New York, we read John L. Allen, Jr.’s Conclave, first published in 2002, which gave a detailed overview of papal conclaves, and served as a primer for the conclave that would elect Benedict XVI in 2005. Allen identified several “factions” around which the cardinals (at the time) cohered. “It’s so political!” said one horrified book club member. “Of course,” I said. “It’s a human organization.” But that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit cannot work through that, and with that.

So does the Spirit choose the next pope?  The best answer may be: Yes, No and It Depends. As the Benedict said, the Spirit guides us, but leaves us free. As in any part of life, we are free to listen or not, and human considerations will always get in the way.

All I know is that when the cardinals begin singing Veni, Sancte Spiritus, I know they’ll mean it. And I’ll be singing right along with them, and praying that the Holy Spirit will indeed come.

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