Paul Pillar

The Vatican Conclave and the Selection of Leaders

The selection of a Roman Catholic pope is a fascinating, even if mostly occluded, political process. It ought to inspire some thinking about what is good and bad about our own process for choosing a top leader. Of course, a church is not a national government (notwithstanding the legally sovereign status of the Holy See), and some aspects of the selection process that may be appropriate for the former would not be for the latter. The cardinals, for example, are supposed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit in choosing a new pope. Given how much religion, contrary to the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, tends to get injected into American politics these days, this may not appear to be a point of major difference—but that is not one of the attractive features of American politics.

In some respects the cardinals' selection of a pope resembles how some cabinet or parliamentary systems, including in Europe, choose top leaders while differing from how U.S. presidents are picked. By choosing someone from their own ranks, the new leader is certain to be someone with already established experience, accomplishment and stature in the organization. There are no retail politics in the Vatican. One can argue for the virtues of American-style retail politics, but a major virtue of the alternative is to eliminate splashy but inept amateurs from consideration. The secrecy of the papal selection process probably would not fit most secular political systems, although until not very many years ago the Conservative Party in Britain chose its leaders, and thus a good number of prime ministers, through a process that was just as opaque to the public.

The feature of papal selection that perhaps provokes the most thought about comparisons and contrasts is that nobody runs for pope. The strong taboo against even the most papabile cardinals displaying any interest in, or ambition for, the job requires cardinals to find ever new ways to issue Shermanesque denials. When Timothy Dolan of New York was asked about talk mentioning him as possibly the first American pope, he replied that the talk was coming “only from people smoking marijuana”—a remark that the New York Post reported under the headline “Pope hope is dope”.

An argument could be made that fire-in-the-belly ambition is a desirable attribute for a person in a leadership position. Some American politicians have cited insufficient flames in their guts as a reason for not seeking higher office. But good performance is likely to correlate more with the view of senior peers that someone has the qualities to do the job well than it does with a person really, really wanting to have the job. Even good campaigners, not necessarily just avid ones, do not necessarily make good presidents.

The no-campaign method of selection also does away with all the compromises and bargains that are an inevitable part of campaigning for a leadership position. The Vatican taboos are pretty strict here, too. Cardinals cannot approach other cardinals who emerge as papal possibilities with offers of support on condition that certain policies be followed once in office.

Nor is there is much reason to think, as American presidential aspirants and other American politicians frequently do, in terms of the minimum majorities needed to win election. Another relevant factor here is the two-thirds majority needed to pick a pope. There will be no contemptuous dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate when 67 percent of the electors are needed to take office.

There is much else besides the selection process that shapes how the performance of popes is different from that of presidents. An obvious difference is that the selection is for life and popes do not run for re-election any more than they run for the office in the first place. That does away with all the negative aspects of a president or other office-holder putting re-election prospects ahead of the national interest in deciding on policies. We would not want presidents for life, of course—although there is a lot to be said for a Mexican-style, single six-year term without possibility of re-election. (Some Vatican watchers speculate that Benedict XVI's leaving office while alive will reduce this difference by setting a precedent for future popes who come to be seen as ineffective to be encouraged to retire too.)

Admittedly, most of what is admirable in how the Vatican selects its top guy is not readily transferable to how we select ours, even in respects in which it would mean an improvement. But the process of selecting U.S. presidents has changed greatly since the beginning of the republic, in ways that go well beyond constitutional provisions and are more a matter of custom, culture and habit. Those things could change some more in the future.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jastrow. CC BY 2.5.