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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Conclave and the New Pope: Precedents, Paradoxes, and Priorities

James M. Weiss, Theology Department, Boston College
Date: April 20, 2005
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Boisi Center

Event Recap

On April 20th, the Boisi Center held a colloquium with The Rev. James Weiss of the Boston College Theology department, who spoke on “The Conclave and the New Pope: Precedents, Paradoxes, and Priorities.” Among other topics, Weiss gave an overview of the history of conclaves, and described the recent conclave’s most pressing issues.

From the Renaissance to 1878, conclaves were heavily political in nature. As popes wielded considerable temporal power, the election of a new pontiff had a direct bearing on the balance of power in Europe, and so conclaves were rife with political machinations, intrigue, and even espionage. But, as Weiss
explained, “1878 marks the turn to the modern conclave, due to the fall of the Papal States in 1870.” As the European monarchies declined and the papacy's own temporal power withered away, conclaves became essentially religious affairs, all but irrelevant to the European balance of power.

The recent conclave faced several issues. Weiss highlighted the challenge of electing a pope when the modern papacy has become an office too large for any one person. The cardinals recognized that the next pope must have the patience of a good listener, the ability to react quickly to global crises, and the aptitude for supervising the Roman Curia. They also had to find someone who could stem the decline of Roman Catholicism in Europe, even as the faith is challenged by a growing evangelical Protestantism in Latin America.