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This week saw reports drawn from another book-length interview from Pope Francis, this time detailing the pope’s own recollections of conclave politics from 2005 and 2013. 

As the pope continues to discuss conclaves, past and future, attention is beginning to focus on the likely frontrunners to succeed him, whenever the day may come. 

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

With early agreement around the likely “left” and “right” candidates for the next conclave, some are beginning to wonder if Cardinal Pietro Parolin could emerge as the consensus cardinal of the “sensible center” and offer an alternative to a divisive showdown in the Sistine Chapel.

But what are the chances of a “Pope Parolin”?

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In an book-length interview with Spanish journalist Javier Martinez-Brocal, published this week, Francis recalled that after the death of Pope St. John Paul II, he found himself as the favorite of a group of cardinals, who put him forward as — according to Francis — a blocking candidate meant to prevent the election of Joseph Razinger.

According to Francis’ telling, the cardinals, whom he declined to name but widely believed to be the self-described “St. Gallen group,” pushed forward the then-Cardinal Bergolio in a bid to stop Ratzinger from gaining the necessary two-thirds majority to be elected.

In the pope’s telling, the plan — to which he says he did not subscribe —wasn’t necessarily to secure his own election, but to block the man who would become Benedict XVI for enough rounds of voting to force new candidates to be considered. Francis said he did not allow his name to go forward as he didn’t think the time was right for his own possible election and that Benedict was a necessary “transitional” pope between himself and St. John Paul II.

As history, the narrative is interesting. Though it is also timely, and the most recent of several such interviews the 87-year old Francis has given about the papal election process, while denying he has any plans to change it. 

These interviews also come as cardinals in Rome and further afield have begun thinking in earnest about the next conclave. 

And, with front-runner status increasingly important to the eventual result, candidates are being quietly considered earlier and more seriously than would previously have been thought proper. 

The field of potential candidates has begun to take shape, with Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and personal papal peace envoy, widely seen as a leading contender of the “center-left,” with Cardinal Mario Grech, the synodal secretary general, floated by some as a progressivist champion and “contrast” candidate to make Zuppi appear more moderate.

Budapest’s Cardinal Peter Erdö has long been considered a favorite possible candidate among the more “conservative” wing of the college, but the cardinal himself is widely seen as reticent to become a talking point or become embroiled in Vatican politics.

More recently, some have begun touting the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, as an emerging dark horse runner in the pre-conclave stakes, as he’s risen to global attention amid the war in Gaza, though it is unclear if his newfound credibility is a “media moment” or actually extends into the cardinalatial ranks.

Amid all the discussion of the possible runners and riders, though, the name of Cardinal Pietro Parolin continues to be mentioned as a perennial possibility. As the Vatican Secretary of State, he is — at least in theory — the second most senior churchman, with a brief that crosses all Vatican departments and corners of global Church affairs.

He is also, his supporters like to point out, a diplomat by training and disposition — a quality the cardinals may prize, come conclave time. They may have a point. 

The global college of bishops remains visibly divided over many core issues of ecclesiology — not least the state of the Church in Germany, the ongoing synodal process, and the continent-wide pushback on Fiducia supplicans from the bishops of Africa. 

For many, the Secretary of State gave his first real indication of where he stood during the synodal assembly in October last year. 

During the closed-door sessions, the cardinal made what attendees called a “strong and clear” intervention urging that participants emphasize fidelity to divine revelation, as interpreted by the Church's magisterium, in the course of their conversations while also praising the principle of synodality and the importance of the process.

For many listeners, Parolin was setting out the case to put some clear boundaries around a synodal process many perceive as recognizing no real limits to its own reforming potential, and they liked what they heard.

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Meanwhile, in Rome, rounds of curial reform and restructuring have left departments, and their cardinal prefects, unsure of themselves, and each other. 

Officials across departments consistently report low morale and little trust between dicasteries, and a general sense that any departmental business, however ordinary, might suddenly trigger a strong intervention from Francis. Indeed, Parolin’s own department has seen its diplomatic offices supplemented (or circumvented) on notable occasions by the pope. 

While Vatican staffers don’t get votes in a conclave, their bosses do, and the desire for a pope who would let the curia “get on with the job” could be a real factor — and one Parolin is uniquely placed to speak for and to. 

With the stage set this way, the argument goes, the cardinals could find Parolin a plausible peacemaker, and an attractive alternative to a protracted contest between rival ideologies when it came time to vote.

Following Francis’ recent comments about Benedict offering a “necessary transition” pontificate between John Paul II and himself, many are already suggesting Parolin, who is 69 but has had serious health issues in the past, could fulfill the same role, offering a period for quiet resettlement after the dynamic and spontaneous, but often personality driven pontificate of Pope Francis.

Rather than force a generational showdown at the next conclave, with the cardinals asked to choose between electing a progressive or reactionary pope with a mandate to settle simmering ideological battles once and for all, Parolin’s proponents are quietly proposes a period of pontifical de-escalation. 

It is the best hope, as they see it, for avoiding a potentially epochal breach in the Catholic communion from somewhere like Germany, or the fatal fracturing of the Church’s doctrinal unity and a rapid slide towards the federalization and disintegration seen by global Anglicanism in recent decades.

Put like that, many might conclude there is a compelling case for a Parolin pontificate. 

But whatever his attractions as a supposed centrist and possible peacemaker, he has no shortage of critics who will also be weighing in before and during any future conclave. And for some of them, the core pitch for a Pope Parolin as a kind of quiet, transitional figure in the mold of Benedict XVI is the best argument against the idea.

While Parolin has, to his undoubted credit, managed to stay above the often bitter personality politics which have come to dominate those in Francis’ orbit — both in and out of papal favor — he’s seen by some as too above the fray, to the point of being detached. 

Critics point often to the chaotic financial chicanery in his own department, laid bare during the recent Vatican financial trial, and the extent to which Parolin appears to have lacked any real grip on what his deputies were up to. 

Moreover, they say, he’s shown himself hesitant, to the point of appearing unwilling, to challenge  with problem players and practices in his own department — not least his convicted former sosituto Cardinal Angelo Becciu and his successor in that office Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra

Some Parolin-for-pope skeptics say that the Benedict XVI comparison would actually prove too apt, and that while the previous pope may have been a source of theological stability, curial dysfunction and corruption ran rampant under his watch, ending in the so-called Vatileaks.

Others, including those close to the Secretariat of State itself, point to the still ongoing lawsuit brought against the department by the former Vatican auditor, Libero Milone, as proof of Parolin’s inability — or disinclination — to resolve issues before they balloon into public scandal.

Milone alleges that he was forced from his office by Cardinal Becciu, who stated at the time he was acting in his capacity as sostituto, and launched his lawsuit in Vatican court (currently on appeal) only after years of seeking an out of court settlement through Parolin’s office, to no avail.

If the concern is that Parolin could prove the ultimate “hands off” pope, instead of a firm hand at the wheel of Vatican machinery, the same sense looms over his likely approach to divisions in the Church. 

While several senior churchmen have said privately that they were impressed by his intervention at the synod, there is concern that have too conciliatory a pope would allow divisions to quietly deepen and solidify, rather than heal.

In discussions of draft documents at a previous synod, one senior figure recalled to The Pillar, Parolin was asked to consider a list of “red lines” presented by senior cardinals on various issues of Church teaching which they insisted could not be undermined. “But we must give them something,” the churchman recalled Parolin saying.

As divisions in the Church harden between bishops in Western Europe (most notably Germany) and other parts of the world, like Africa, it is an open question how attractive a policy of mutual appeasement will be when put to a vote in a conclave.

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Further afield, Parolin’s reputation as a diplomat is universal, but hardly universally celebrated. Under Pope Francis, the cardinal has coordinated the Vatican’s diplomatic rapprochement with China, and was the chief architect of the highly controversial Vatican-China deal on the appointment of mainland bishops.

Parolin has long attracted fierce criticism for the deal, which critics say has left lay faithful, priests, and bishops at the mercy of the Communist Party and done little, if anything, to actually advance the evangelization of China. 

In 2020, he responded to a question about Christian persecution in China with an incredulous “But what persecution?” in what has become probably the Parolin’s most famous quote — even and including among his brother cardinals.

For many handicapping Parolin’s chances to become pope, his ability (and willingness) to distance himself from the China deal could be a key indicator of his viability in a conclave. 

But, while the cardinal has recently struck a more cautious public tone about the progress that deal has actually made, and the good faith of the Chinese government, Vatican officials and cardinals have told The Pillar in recent weeks that Parolin remains privately defiant in his defense of the deal, and insists engagement with China is the most important priority for the Church today.

That may be a reasonable private discernment for the Secretary of State to make, but absent clear progress to show for his efforts, or a more compelling argument than he’s so far seemed willing to make, it is unlikely to prove widely popular in a conclave.

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On balance, the arguments for and against Parolin both highlight perhaps his strongest suit in any bid to become a centrist, “third party” candidate in a future papal election — he is well known. 

Critics and supporters alike broadly agree on his qualifications for the job, his track record, and his likely attributes as a potential pope, even if they disagree on how attractive a prospect they find them.

In a college of cardinals made up of relative strangers, more so than ever before in the modern era, familiarity — or at least the perception of familiarity — can be a powerful asset. But the depth of support Parolin could likely draw on is hard to gauge, especially in the crucial early rounds of voting.

Assuming a hypothetical matchup between a left and right pair of frontrunners, neither of whom could command a two-thirds majority within the first three rounds of voting, the question then becomes: does Parolin make a strong enough showing to convince either side to throw their support behind him as a compromise?

But even if he does, the conclave mathematics might only offer him a narrow window for election. 

If he quickly attracted, say, just over half of the total votes on a ballot and appeared to be trending forward, he could wrap up the election on day 3 of voting. But if he appeared to stall at or around half of the votes, showing he was unable to secure the necessary two thirds, but effectively block either of the previous front-runners, he could find himself cast as an accidental stalking horse from behind which a true surprise candidate could emerge.

A true diplomat, Cardinal Parolin probably already knows all of this. The more interesting question may prove to be who, if anyone, he would help elevate if things were to play out this way.

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