When prin­ci­ple and com­pro­mise com­pete in the Sis­tine Chapel

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Robert Har­ris By Claire Ho­p­ley Claire Ho­p­ley is a writer and ed­i­tor in Amherst, Mass.

Do­ings that oc­cur be­hind closed doors al­ways fas­ci­nate and es­pe­cially if they have to do with pol­i­tics or power, which is one rea­son why doc­u­ment leaks al­ways hit the head­lines. The al­lure of se­crecy and the thrill of leak-like rev­e­la­tions of se­cret dis­cus­sion are the en­gines of “Con­clave,” Robert Har­ris’ lat­est novel, which takes read­ers into the Vat­i­can for the elec­tion of a pope.

The elec­tors are the car­di­nals of the Catholic Church, 118 of them in this case. The drill is that they are se­questered from in the Vat­i­can, where they live in a guest­house and go to the Sis­tine Chapel ev­ery day to cast their votes. Each time they fail to reach the nec­es­sary ma­jor­ity, the bal­lot pa­pers are burned, and their black smoke sig­nals this news to the watch­ers in St. Peter’s Square. When a pope is elected, the pa­pers are burned with a chem­i­cal that pro­duces white smoke. Shortly there­after, he ap­pears on the bal­cony, wear­ing the pa­pal vest­ments and now bear­ing his cho­sen pa­pal name: Fran­cis in the case of for­mer Car­di­nal Ber­goglio, now the pope.

This much is widely known about pa­pal elec­tions, but the de­tails of the car­di­nals’ se­ques­tra­tion, and what they do when clos­eted in the Sis­tine Chapel, is more ob­scure. All the car­di­nals are po­ten­tial can­di­dates. Do some of them lobby for the job? It would not be un­rea­son­able to imag­ine that pop­u­lar car­di­nals are nom­i­nated by their fel­lows, and that the whole Col­lege of Car­di­nals de­bates the mer­its of each nom­i­nee be­fore vot­ing. And as for the vot­ing, who could be sur­prised if it oc­curred in some ar­cane me­dieval form? Maybe the car­di­nals sim­ply raise their hands or an­nounce Latin yeas and nays. But as “Con­clave” re­veals, there is no de­bate in the Sis­tine Chapel. The car­di­nals fill out bal­lot pa­pers with the name they fa­vor, fold them to pre­serve se­crecy, then place them cer­e­mo­ni­ously in a chal­ice with all eyes watch­ing. The votes are im­me­di­ately tal­lied, and if no-one wins, the car­di­nals pro­ceed to another vote — again with­out de­bate.

With­out de­bate in the Sis­tine Chapel that is. When the car­di­nals re­turn to their hos­tel for meals they politic vig­or­ously among them­selves. Robert Har­ris shows us all this through the eyes of Car­di­nal Lomeli, the 75-year old dean of the Col­lege of Car­di­nals, who is in charge of the elec­tion. He sup­ports the lib­eral Car­di­nal Bellini, who is well-fa­vored by other car­di­nals. But so too is Car­di­nal Tedesco, an out­spo­ken con­ser­va­tive who de­plores the late-20th-cen­tury changes in the church. Bellini knows that Tedesco’s be­liefs are sin­cere, “But sin­cere non­sense. I stand for re­spect­ing other faiths and tol­er­at­ing dif­fer­ent views within our own church.” He also be­lieves women should have more power in the church. Lomeli warns him to keep quiet about this opin­ion since oth­ers will see it as a short­cut to fe­male or­di­na­tion and op­pose him. Tedesco, though, never tem­pers his views to win votes, though he cer­tainly aims to be pope. Strate­gi­cally, he ar­rives late. “It was shrewd of him . . . With Tedesco less is al­ways more. One out­spo­ken news­pa­per in­ter­view could have fin­ished him,” his op­po­nent notes.

There are two more se­ri­ous con­tenders: the French-Cana­dian Car­di­nal Trem­blay, the cham­ber­lain of the Vat­i­can fi­nances and an adept at get­ting along, and the Nige­rian Car­di­nal Adeyemi, a man of strong views against women and ho­mo­sex­u­als. While Tedesco, Adeyemi, and Trem­blay ac­tively cam­paign and have sup­port­ers who can­vass on their be­half, Bellini is riven by his sense that he should not seek the pa­pacy, and sub­se­quently by his dis­ap­point­ment as his sup­port di­min­ishes with each vote. Lomeli, on the other hand, though he has no de­sire to be pope, sees his own tally grow. As for the oth­ers, Adeyemi gar­ners early sup­port, but later it’s a race be­tween Tedesco and Trem­blay: “be­tween un­yield­ing prin­ci­ple on the one hand; yearning for com­pro­mise on the other.”

As a for­mer po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist Robert Har­ris is fa­mil­iar with how prin­ci­ple and com­pro­mise play out in the cor­ri­dors of power. His sharp sense of how power is sought, won, and han­dled is an im­por­tant strength of this novel, as it was of his pre­vi­ous books on an­cient Rome, is. He is good, too, on the ef­fects of power on peo­ple. His por­trait of Bellini is acute, and so is his sketch of Tedesco, a man of the peo­ple whose down-to-earth style en­dears him to some and ter­ri­fies oth­ers.

But while Mr. Har­ris po­si­tions Bellini and Tedesco at op­pos­ing ends of the Catholic be­lief and ar­rays the other fa­vored car­di­nals in be­tween, he never moves be­yond the barest ref­er­ences to Catholic doc­trines or cur­rent is­sues in the church. In ef­fect, he moves “Con­clave” into a po­lit­i­cal story with some thriller el­e­ments. It is read­able, rather than mem­o­rable; en­ter­tain­ing rather than chal­leng­ing; a sneak peek through the heavy doors of the Sis­tine Chapel rather than a rev­e­la­tion.

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