ROME — Despite an enormous amount of media chaff throughout April 2005, it was clear to those with eyes to see that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the obvious, leading candidate to succeed John Paul II. There is no such clear front-runner in 2013, although even more journalistic chaff is being vented into the atmosphere, primarily from Italian media sources whose ability to distinguish fact from fiction is not overly well-developed and who like to play Machiavellian games with this candidate and that.
Why no front-runner? As the general congregations of cardinals began on March 4, no cardinal had anything resembling the stature and authority of Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005; that's certainly one reason. But there are also unique dynamics shaping the 2013 conclave — and, ultimately, the selection of the next bishop of Rome.
1. Unlike 2005, there is an unsettling sense that the Church is in uncharted and perilous waters because of the abdication of Benedict XVI, an act that really has no precedent (other abdications having happened under very different circumstances). Will this abdication set up pressures on future popes, some of which cannot be imagined today? Does the possibility, already being bruited, that a very young man could be elected pope (because “he can do this for 15 years and then retire”) suggest a fundamental alteration in Catholic understandings of the papacy, changes that reduce the papacy to a Catholic variant on the role of the archbishopric of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion?
2. While there were concerns about the Vatican bureaucracy in 2005 — there always are when conclaves meet — there is, today, a widespread and firmly held conviction that the central administrative machinery of the Church is broken and that it must be fixed so that the Curia becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it. Needless to say, most of those involved in that curial machinery, i.e., cardinal electors who are either serving in the Curia or are retired from it (and who are some 20% of the electorate), have a different view. The disconnect between the reformers' perceptions of what's been going on and the defensiveness of many Curial cardinals has led to an undercurrent of anger that was not discernible in 2005 and that could lead to real tensions.
3. These two currents have, in turn, led to a strong reaction against what is perceived as an excessive and failed re-Italianization of the Vatican, the results of which were to make Benedict XVI's life and work far more difficult. As with complaints about the Curia, complaints about "the Italians" are a staple of pre-conclave conversation; but the tone, this time, is different. As one Italian friend, a distinguished academic and active Catholic layman, put it to me, "Our [Italian] culture has become corrupt"; and he believed, sadly, that that corruption had seeped behind the walls of the Vatican through the re-Italianization of the Roman Curia. A determination to deal with this aspect of the present Roman dysfunction will be another element in the 2013 conclave that was not present — or at least with such intensity — in 2005.
4. The Catholic Church is in the midst of a major change in leadership cadres or cohorts. Twenty percent of the 2013 electorate is retired. Only 8% of the cardinal electors are under 65. Men who have spent their entire ecclesiastical lives in the waning years of Counter-Reformation Catholicism are slowly being replaced by men who have grown into ecclesial maturity in the first phases of "Evangelical Catholicism," the Catholicism of the New Evangelization. The latter are the future, but their relative weight in this conclave is slight, and that tension will also be felt.
5. Finally, many cardinals admit that they don't know their brother cardinals very well. That's a problem I anticipated in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books), where I proposed a biennial or triennial meeting of the College of Cardinals to assess the progress of the New Evangelization — and to let these men take each other's measure, with an eye to future conclaves.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.