WDEL Blog: Allan Loudell

The Papal Conclave begins...

The heavy wooden door to the Sistine Chapel has been closed and locked, marking the start of the conclave to elect Benedict XVI's successor.

I've run the following analogy past Vatican watchers / journalists:

In a criminal trial here in the United States, if the jury returns a verdict quickly, more times than not the prosecutiion wins; the defendant is found guilty. If jury deliberations become a marathon - if the jury keeps asking the judge questions - jurors are truly deliberating and divided, and the accused has a better chance of winning acquittal, or at least being found 'not guilty' on some of the charges.

Now to the Papal Conclave: Because the cardinals in the Curia (Vatican bureaucracy) KNOW one another, they may be able to coalesce around a single cardinal more easily than the outside cardinals. (Remember: Not all the curialists are Italians or even Europeans. For example, they might quickly coalesce around a 'Third World' cardinal, such as Brazil's Cardinal Odilo Scherer. Or around Cardinal Angelo Scola, seen as Italy's best shot at reclaiming the Chair of Peter.) Then again, many of them being ambitious 'careerists', perhaps not.

A "compromise" Italian Curial cardinal might be Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Holy See's culture minister. He has a reputation for his fluency in many languages, which is the downside to most U.S. cardinals.

Still, if the white smoke wafts up "early" - within the first one-and-a-half days - it's a pretty good bet a Curial cardinal, or a Curia-backed cardinal, prevailed.

If the conclave goes on 2--3 days, it's a wash. If the cardinals cannot decide by the weekend, it likely signals a real divide and COULD produce a dramatic outcome.

Another interesting debate emerges: If a primary goal is reform of the Curia, would it take an outsider - not a creature of the Curia - to do it? Or no, although the outsider might have such impulses, even a new pope with seemingly absolute powers would be running into a wall at every turn? Conversely, would it be possible to have a reformist curial cardinal elected pope who might be much more effective because - to borrow the metaphor - he knew where the skeletons were buried?

And just to again correct a faulty assumption I keep hearing from everyday Catholics interviewed by the media (as covered in this blog earlier), a non-European pope would almost certainly not mean a "progressive" pope - even a John XXIII - the way most folks interpret that term (sexuality, married or women priests, etc.) Not that any of these cardinals -- all appointed by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI -- would necessarily be "progressive" on those issues which keep coming up (Except, perhaps, along the edges, as in revisiting the issue of married priests in the Western Church or permitting emergency, non-abortifacient birth control for victims of rape).

Perhaps the best-connected journalist covering the Vatican for English language media, John Allen, posts this piece about the presumed Papal contenders---


LATE WORD: Black smoke goes up from the Sistine Chapel (just before 3 p.m.). Predictably, no new Pope...

Father Tom Reese, former editor of the Jesuit weekly AMERICA, now covering the conclave for NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER, has an interesting account of how the voting rules have been tooled and re-tooled -- and the implications...


Posted at 2:00pm on March 12, 2013 by Allan Loudell

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Comments on this post:

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 2:33pm
I wonder aloud whether Mr. Loudell would make a good pope: knowledgeable and well-versed in the issues, committed to the core values of the Catholic church, compassionate with integrity...all key traits of the next papal leader.

Would Pope Loudell fight to preserve the Vatican's traditional positions, or would he show a progressive streak on abortion, gay marriage and contraception? I'll watch for the white smoke to come out of the chimney of the WDEL building.

Mike from Delaware
Tue, Mar 12, 2013 3:38pm
As a Protestant Christian, who leans towards Lutheranism, I pray that the Holy Spirit will give the Cardinals the vision to know who God's choice is for the leader of the largest Christian denomination and the courage to vote for him.

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 6:53pm
Speaking of smoke, how do they make that black smoke that pours out of the Sistine Chapel chimney? Do they use that "evil" fuel we call coal?

Allan Loudell
Tue, Mar 12, 2013 7:11pm

The burning of paper ballots, now with a chemical additive to ensure it looks "black". But admittedly, one component in the black smoke is anthracene, which derives from coal tar. (But keep in mind... smoke from a coal-burning plant can come out white or gray!)

A previous conclave produced confusing rather gray smoke, so Vatican officials have sought to avoid the confusion!

Allan Loudell

Mike from Delaware
Tue, Mar 12, 2013 11:27pm
Didn't they used to use damp straw with the paper ballots to get the black smoke? That's what I remember hearing years ago. Was that what caused confusion, it was gray smoke and not black?

Allan Loudell
Wed, Mar 13, 2013 5:57am
To Mike.

Yup. Damp straw. And that caused confusion a few times during the 1958 conclave that elected Pope John XXIII, when apparently the damp straw failed to ignite.

By the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican was using a cartridge, including one called "Fumo Bianco", but that too caused confusion.

So Vatican officials have worked to refine the process.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the Vatican press office finally disclosed the composition of the colored smoke: The white smoke comes from a combination of potassium chlorate, milk sugar (serving as an ignitable fuel) and pine rosin. The black smoke is composed of potassium perchlorate and anthracene (which comes from coal tar), with sulfur as the fuel.

The Vatican says the chemicals are electrically ignited in a special stove first used for the conclave of 2005. The colored smoke and smoke from the burning ballots mix, and go up the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. A backup fan ensures that no smoke enters the chapel.

As a redundancy, the Vatican will ring the bells of St. Peter's when the cardinals elect a new Bishop of Rome.

Allan Loudell

Wed, Mar 13, 2013 8:00am

In this day and age, they could communicate without the black and white smoke. Just go on the Pope's Twitter account and tweet whether a new Pope has been selected.

Wed, Mar 13, 2013 8:09pm
Great idea, Teatime! Communicate the modern (and I would say probably the least expensive) way!

However, if you do want to send black smoke signals, I know a way you can GUARANTEE it will be black: Just keep a pile of used tires around, light a fire, and throw a couple of them in there!

Mike from Delaware
Wed, Mar 13, 2013 11:42pm
Thanks Allan for the background info.

Sun, Mar 17, 2013 1:55am
This was written with hindsight.

But I think God did a good job with this conclave.... The didn't focus on personalities; they focused on what the Church needed...

There is so much hope, even in non Catholic religions with this new pope... now maybe we can all get the world back on track...

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