When Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, I was overjoyed. As much as I loved John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke to me in a special way.
I was puzzled, though, by the way people began announcing him as “God’s choice” and speaking as if—in every conclave—the Holy Spirit himself selects the pope.
It’s customary for people to speak that way in the jubilation that occurs whenever a new people is elected. (When Pope Francis was elected five years ago today, it was no different.) I knew that, but until Benedict’s election, I hadn’t experienced it firsthand.
That kind of language is understandable as a way of building confidence for the new pontificate, but is it literally true? Does the Holy Spirit really select the best possible man for the job, or is this a form of pious hyperbole?
Common sense would suggest the latter. The cardinals in a conclave certainly invoke the Holy Spirit and seek his guidance, but he does not override their free will.
We’ve had some really bad popes in the history of the Church, and not just ones like Peter who made mistakes and then repented. There have been genuinely bad actors: for example, Benedict IX, who reigned three different times between 1032 and 1048.
So in what sense can the election of a pope be said to be God’s will?
Everything that happens in history takes place under God’s providential care. By his omnipotence, God could stop any event from occurring, and so if something happens, it’s because God allows it.
The election of a pope thus can be said to be God’s will in the same sense that any historical event can be. In this broad sense, however, the fact that something is God’s will does not guarantee that he approves of it. It may be God’s will to allow a man to commit adultery, but that doesn’t mean he approves of the act.
Is the election of a pope in accord with God’s will only in this minimal sense or does it involve something greater?
Although God does not override human free will, he does offer guidance. Jesus gave the Church certain promises in this regard, stating:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (John 16:13).
Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matt. 28:20).
God has thus promised to give the Church his guidance. He has also promised it to individuals:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him (James 1:5).
If an individual man seeks God’s guidance, he can count on it being given. This does not mean it will be easy to hear or understand, or that the man will act on it, but it does mean that God will offer his assistance in some way.
Similarly, when the College of Cardinals seeks God’s guidance in a conclave, they can be confident he will give it. Indeed, given the weightiness of the decision facing the cardinals and the implications it will have for the entire Church, they can expect he will provide even greater guidance.
This does not guarantee that the guidance will be easy to hear or understand, or that the cardinals will act on it, but it does mean that God’s assistance will be provided.
By presuming the discernment and good will of the cardinals, we may presume that the man they elect was chosen in accord with God’s guidance and thus that his election was God’s will in a greater way than if God merely allowed it.
We should be careful about assuming that there is only one correct choice for pope, for the process of selecting a pope is similar to the process of selecting a spouse. Pop culture sometimes promotes the idea that all people have a soul mate—a single, best individual that they should marry—but the reality is more complex.
Each marriage prospect has different strengths and weaknesses, and depending on whom you choose, your marriage will unfold in different ways. But that doesn’t mean there is one best candidate you must find. Even if there were, identifying that person with confidence cannot be humanly accomplished, given the number of factors and the number of unknowns in play.
Similarly, candidates for the papacy have different strengths and weaknesses. Depending on whom the cardinals choose, the next papacy will unfold in different ways. But there may not be a single, best choice—or one that is humanly knowable.
Once a selection has been made, however, a new mode of divine will comes into play.
In the case of a marriage, once you exchange vows, it is God’s will that you treat that person as your spouse. The realm of possibilities that existed before has now reduced to a single person, and that person is your divinely ordained spouse. God ordained that you be spouses in the moment the vows were exchanged, and “what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:6).
It’s now your job to make the marriage work, not to worry about what-ifs and might-have-beens.
Similarly, when a man accepts his election as pope, he becomes the divinely ordained pope, and it’s now everyone’s job in the Church to support him, in the various ways that are appropriate to their station , to make the papacy work.
Spouses are not perfect, and neither are popes. Just as every marriage has challenges and requires work, so does every papacy.
When he was still a cardinal, back in 1997, Benedict XVI acknowledged that cardinals can elect sub-optimal popes. When asked on German television whether the Holy Spirit is responsible for the election of a pope, he said:
I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. . . . I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.
There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!
Similarly, in his final address to the College of Cardinals, Pope Benedict stated:
Before I say goodbye to each one of you personally, I would like to tell you that I shall continue to be close to you with my prayers, especially in these coming days, that you may be completely docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope. May the Lord show you the one whom he wants.
Benedict’s prayer that they will be docile to the Holy Spirit indicates the possibility that they will not be docile.
Nobody knows when the next conclave will be, but we can draw several implications from all this.
First, we can be confident from the fact that the cardinals seek God’s guidance that he will give it to them, as he has promised.
Second, even if they make a sub-optimal choice, we can be confident that God will ultimately bring good out of it, for “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom. 8:28; cf. CCC 311).
Third, we need to pray. We need to pray now that good cardinals will be chosen, and when they meet in conclave, we need to pray that they will earnestly seek and heed God’s guidance.