NEW YORK (RNS) Was there a secret plot to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the papal conclave last year?
Did Bergoglio — who became Pope Francis at that conclave — give the go-ahead to such a plan?
And does that campaign call his election, and his papacy, into question?
Such questions might sound like plot twists to a new Vatican thriller by Dan Brown, but they are actually the latest talking points promoted by some Catholic conservatives upset with the direction that Francis is leading the church.
The furor stems from a behind-the-scenes account of the March 2013 conclave, presented in a new book about Francis titled “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”
In the last chapter of the biography, which focuses on Bergoglio’s early life in Argentina and career as a Jesuit, author Austen Ivereigh delivers an insider account of how a group of cardinals who wanted a reformer pope quietly sought to rally support for Bergoglio in the days leading up to the conclave.
Cardinals take an oath not to divulge details of a conclave and Ivereigh based his account on background interviews with cardinals who took part.
He called Francis’ boosters “Team Bergoglio.” They were led by reform-minded European churchmen like Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of England, who Ivereigh once worked for, and German prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has become a trusted theological adviser to Francis.
At one point, Ivereigh writes that members of “Team Bergoglio” sought the Argentine cardinal’s “assent” that he would not refuse the papacy if the voting turned his way. During the 2005 conclave, Bergoglio reportedly refused to take up the mantle when he was running second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually be elected Pope Benedict XVI.
This time, Ivereigh writes, Bergoglio “said that he believed that at this time of crisis for the Church no cardinal could refuse if asked.”
In conclaves, cardinals often signal whether they would refuse or go along with an election, if it happened.
Also, while overt politicking is strongly discouraged, and conclave rules expressly forbid dealmaking, cardinals often coalesce in camps behind one contender or another.
But when Ivereigh’s book was published last month (he personally presented a copy to Francis), media accounts of the politics of the conclave prompted some to question whether Bergoglio himself was involved by giving the go-ahead, and whether that could undermine the legitimacy of his election.
Murphy-O’Connor’s press secretary wrote a letter to a British newspaper saying that no approach had been made to Bergoglio seeking his assent.
And on Monday (Dec. 1), the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, issued a statement saying the cardinals cited “have expressly denied this description of events, both in terms of the demand for a prior consent by Cardinal Bergoglio and with regard to the conduct of a campaign for his election.”
Church sources said the Vatican’s quick reaction was an indication of how concerned Rome is that Francis’ opponents will use any pretext to try to sow doubts about him and his papacy.
Ivereigh, a leading Vatican expert who was in New York this week to promote his book, said Tuesday (Dec. 2) that he stands by his reporting. But Ivereigh said he regretted phrasing the episode to make it seem that Bergoglio had been approached about being a candidate and gave his backers encouragement.
“That never happened and I am sorry that I gave the impression that’s what happened,” Ivereigh told Religion News Service. “I think the whole chapter makes clear that he never had any role at all in his own election.”
Ivereigh said he was trying to show that as opposed to the 2005 conclave, Bergoglio’s supporters in 2013 “were convinced he wouldn’t resist his election.”
“The conclave rules do not prevent cardinals from urging other cardinals to vote for a particular person,” he added. “And indeed that is exactly what happens. That is part of the discernment that happens in a papal election.”
Ivereigh said he will be changing the wording of one paragraph in future editions of the book to clarify Bergoglio’s role. (NOTE: See text of the wording change at the end of this story.)
Whether that will satisfy the critics is unclear.
Some fringe elements in the Catholic Church have proposed various theories they claim might either invalidate the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013 or the election of Francis the following month.
Others see the accounts of conclave machinations as further evidence that Pope Francis is, for them, a far more manipulative and autocratic figure than the public believes.
Ivereigh says that in future reprints of “The Great Reformer,” the paragraph at the top of Page 355 will be amended as follows:
They had learned their lessons from 2005. They first secured Bergoglio’s assent. Asked if he was willing, he said that he believed that at this time of crisis for the Church no cardinal could refuse if asked.
In keeping with conclave rules, they did not ask Bergoglio if he would be willing to be a candidate. But they believed this time that the crisis in the Church would make it hard for him to refuse if elected.