It's common for Catholics to say that a newly elected pope is "God's choice" or that, the Holy Spirit chooses the new pope.
There's a sense in which this is true.
But does that mean that we can just sit back and assume the ideal candidate will be elected?
If so, why do we need to pray for the election of the new pope?
And what has Pope Benedict XVI had to say about the matter?
The Mystery of Providence
Since God is omnipotent, he could stop any particular thing in the universe from happening. Therefore, if something does happen, it is only because God allowed it to happen.
If God chose to allow it, anything that does happen could--in this broadest sense--be described as God's choice.
But that does not mean it is what God prefers.
There are a lot of things in history that God allowed but that would not have been his "first choice."
Take the fall of man and our redemption by Christ. In one sense, that's clearly God's choice. But we cannot ascribe Adam's sin to God as his ideal choice.
How man's free will relates to God's providence is complex, and we should be careful of simplistic solutions.
God Guides the Church
We can be confident of the general principle that God guides his Church. This is something we have biblical assurance of.
But his guidance does not prevent human free will from operating, and that means there is the potential for humans to abuse their free will.
That applies to the college of cardinals, too, even when they are electing a pope. They do not lose their free will.
Human Failure in History
We have been very fortunate in recent times to have a series of very holy, wise popes, but this has not always been the case.
If you look at history, certain popes have been real scoundrels, like Pope Benedict IX (first elected in 1032).
He was elected pope when still a boy. His reign was scandalous. He insisted upon monetary compensation in order to get him to resign. And then he didn't stay resigned. He was the only man to ever hold the papacy more than once. (In fact, he may have held it as many as three times.)
Without going into all the scandals attributed to him, the Catholic Encyclopedia states: "He was a disgrace to the Chair of Peter."
What Has Pope Benedict XVI Said?
Pope Benedict XVI frankly acknowledged the fact that cardinals can elect sub-optimal popes in an interview with German television back in 1997.
When asked 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!
What Was Pope Benedict's Final Exhortation?
He didn't say it as directly, but the same concern was reflected in Pope Benedict's final address to the college of cardinals on the day his resignation took effect.
He told them:
Before I say “goodbye” to you personally, I would like to tell you that I shall continue to be close to you with prayers, especially in these coming days, so 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.
His prayer that the cardinals be docile to the action of the Holy Spirit indicates that they could fail to be docile.
They could misuse their free will, clinging to their own ideas and perceptions about who ought to be pope, and resist the guidance God is offering them, so that they don't clearly see the one whom God wants.
Still a Valid Vocation
If they were to do that and pick a sub-optimal candidate, that man would still validly become pope. He would--at that point--be called by God to fulfill the office of the papacy.
This is similar to a marriage. Even if there was someone better you could have married, once you say, "I do," God calls you to faithfully live your vocation as the spouse of that person.
In the same way, even if there could have been a better choice of pope, once a pope has been chosen, God calls that man to faithfully exercise the office of the papacy.
But one does not want to "settle" for a merely valid pope any more than one wants to "settle" for a merely valid spouse.
We want popes that are right for what the Church needs now, just as we want spouses that are right for us.
And so we need to pray for discernment in conclaves, just as we need to pray for discernment in courtships.
We Need to Pray!
I'm a big believer in using the faculty of reason to solve problems. That's why God gave us the faculty of reason.
But I'm also a big believer in prayer, particularly when we're dealing with huge, supermassive problems that go beyond what any one of us could know on a human level.
One such supermassive problem is: "Who is the best man to be pope, given all the complex issues the Church faces and all the uncertainties of the future?"
That's something we need to pray about!
This isn't just Pope Benedict's sentiment. It's why prayer for the election of a new pope is part of the Church's Tradition.
The Church even has a Mass for the Election of a Pope [.pdf].
It's why monasteries and parishes and even the humblest lay faithful can and should and do pray for the college of cardinals while they are in conclave.
Confidence and Vigilance
We can be confident that God will offer his guidance to the college of cardinals.
And we can be confident in the efficacy of prayer--that, as part of God's design, he sends extra graces when we turn to him in prayer.
These twin confidences leads us to vigilance in prayer.
We don't just want a pope or even a good pope, we want the best pope possible.
Let's pray for that.
Earnestly and often.
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