The Italian daily La Stampa had an article yesterday about the US diplomatic documents leaked on the internet. In this case, they concerned the papal conclave of 2005.
The highlights of the article.
Before the election the staff of the US embassy to the Holy See sent speculations to Washington about the one to be elected.
“The first factor will be age, the cardinals will seek someone who is neither too young nor too old, because they don’t want to have another funeral and conclave quickly” but “they also want to avoid having a long pontificate like that of John Paul II.” Furthermore, “it will be a person in reasonably good health”. Another element will be “linguistic ability” and he will have to know Italian.
Yes, folks, this is penetrating analysis from the US embassy to the Holy See.
Going on… they opined that it would be a Latin American cardinal. Perhaps they were glued to CNN. Had they been listening to FoxNews and people like me (was a contributor at the time) they would have gotten it right. But I digress.
On the day of the election itself, there was a cable to Washington which pooh-poohed the possible election of Ratzinger. Apparently the election shocked them. They were also bamboolzed by media reports that Ratzinger was an “autocratic despot”. That’s what you get when your remote TV control is stuck on CNN and you hang only with liberal clergy in Rome. On the other hand, when one of them high up in the embassy met Cardinal Ratzinger he was described as “surprisingly humble, spiritual and easy to deal with”.
There were speculations about a Rome/Germany axis for the Church. Lord… did they really have people that dense working in the US embassy back then? And that was during an administration friendly toward the Holy See.
On 12 May 2005 there was the aforementioned 7 page document “Benedict XVI: Looking Ahead to the New Pontificate” which projected what was going to happen with an “identikit” of the new Pope. It suggested that this Pope would act in continuity with his predecessor. It included the line: “in time of crisis the Church finds refuge in European identity. They also suggested that this new Pope would battle secularism in the USA and the rest of the West, turning his attention also to developing nations, in particular Latin America were there are many disappointed Catholics because a Latin American Pope wasn’t elected.
From what I can glean from the article in La Stampa, the folks in the US embassy to the Holy See were mired in cliches and working from preconceptions which blinded them to the facts in front of their faces before the election. As a personal aside: about a year before the death of John Paul, I made a bet with another journalist about who would be elected… not whom we wanted to see elected, but whom we thought actually would be. We could choose three in order of likelihood. My choice of Ratzinger at the top of the list brought out a laugh of incredulity. But to be fair I laughed also at his choice of Cardinal Danneels. That anecdote serves to show something of the mindset of a lot of people floating close to the center of things, those most “in the know” and involved in speculation (a Vatican watcher obsession).
It seems to me that the Catholic Church is fairly important. The US State Department would do well to put competent, serious people who really understand the workings of the Church in their embassy to the Holy See.