6 Factors that Could Sway the Next Conclave

Over the last year I’ve read dozens of articles speculating on the outcome of next conclave. Some will handicap the potential candidates while others discourage it. My takeaway is that in the next conclave the cardinals will give certain factors more weight than others.

Curial Reform

This is surely the big one. In his recent review of a book on the conclave that elected Pope Francis, Conor Dugan points out the obvious:

…An anonymous cardinal stated that they needed to elect a pope “who knows how to reform the Curia and make it more credible and transparent.”

…What are we to make between the yawning gap between what the cardinals saw as the need to reform the Curia and the actual results of that reform seven years into this [Francis’] papacy?  …The scandals continue. The lack of transparency abounds. What basis did the cardinals have to believe that Cardinal Bergoglio had the experience and administrative skills to pull this feat off? (link).

If an outsider is considered by the cardinal electors, then he would have to be someone who is stationed in Rome and knows first-hand the inner workings of the Curia and with a determined plan for making changes. Someone with little or no experience in Rome will probably be overlooked.


A Church historian recently commented on the Pope’s style of communication:

Pope Francis is much less guarded or careful than popes not just in recent history but in the previous 19th, 18th and 17th centuries, all of whom were very careful. He’s constantly surprising me as he surprises everyone else. But what I find very odd about him is that he’s a Jesuit and yet the Jesuit tradition has for so long emphasized being careful. So, he just blurts things out… (Link).

To the historian, Francis’ lack of caution in expressing himself was uncharacteristic of any of the popes over the last five centuries. Irrespective of whether one is theologically progressive or not, it will surely be on the minds of the cardinals at the next conclave. A candidate’s predictability in this regard will possibly play a role in his vote tally.


Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope when he was 78; Francis was 76. Vatican reporters have often mentioned that since the election of Pope John Paul II at 58, whose pontificate spanned 27 years, the cardinals have preferred an older pope. Considered a good candidate for pope by some, Manila’s Cardinal Tagle is 62 and may be seen by those in the next conclave as too young.


Prior to the Election of John Paul II, one would have to go back 455 years to find another non-Italian pope (Adrian VI who was Dutch). JPII was Polish, Benedict is German, and Francis is Argentinian. The string of Italian popes was broken and may continue to remain so. There seems to be an interest in a more global perspective on the papacy.

Two regions that have been historically ignored are Asia and Africa. Regarding the latter, Vatican reporter Marco Tossati wrote:

Africa is the continent where the Church is growing most dramatically, and where faith is often practiced to the point of martyrdom. Nothing could be more fitting than for the next pope to come from that continent (link).

Direction of the Church

Isn’t the mission of Christ and the Church is a spiritual one as opposed to an earthly one? The political issues of today: the ecology, alleviation of poverty, open immigration etc., are important but were not the priorities of Christ and His apostles. The question now is whether there will be a desire on the part of the electors to maintain continuity with the priorities of Pope Francis.

Currently a third of the 124 cardinal electors are from developing countries, not including those from Central or South America. Regarding these Crux’s John Allen observed:

Generally speaking, what Westerners are most interested in is whether a given pope is appointing more “liberal” or “conservative” cardinals, and thus men inclined to steer the Church …in a more progressive or traditional direction. Those categories, however, often don’t apply to non-Western cultures, where the issues that matter often don’t break along the fault lines of left v. right.

Voting Dynamics

Finally, it is interesting that in the last two conclaves the winner had to survive multiple rounds of voting in which he accumulated votes from electors for whom he was not the first choice, or maybe even the second or third. A momentum develops which can cause capitulation on the part of the electors. The process could lead to a surprising outcome. The book review cited above includes a fascinating analysis of the 2013 conclave’s voting patterns.

Robert Cardinal Sarah

While Vatican observer Sandro Magister doesn’t think that Cardinal Sarah stands a chance, he concedes that he would get a significant number of votes in the first round of a conclave. The Cardinal is 74, scandal-free, and a high profile long-time member of the curia. Moreover, as evidenced in his actions and writings, a true man of God.


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