On the role of the Holy Spirit in papal elections

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 03, 2017

A common question among Catholics today is: “What was the Holy Spirit doing during the conclave that elected Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis?” The answer, of course, is that the Holy Spirit was doing what He is always doing, prompting all involved to cast their votes for the good of the Church, just as He has prompted all involved to form a proper understanding of the good of the Church. But the Holy Spirit does not choose the pope; that is left to the vagaries of men, and the vagaries of their response to grace.

In other words, the Holy Spirit does not arrange the votes so that the best possible candidate is elected. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the choice will reflect God’s active will, though the choice of a particular man as pope obviously fits within God’s permissive will. To put the matter succinctly, the promptings of the Holy Spirit are as certainly real as they are frequently resisted.

Happily, the Catholic Church enjoys some Divine guarantees, but they are not numerous. Christ promised to be with the Church to the end of time, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. This means essentially that the Holy Spirit will not permit the Church’s Divine constitution to be lost (such as the disappearance of the Catholic hierarchy), that the fullness of all the means of salvation will always be available in the Church, that the Church’s sacraments will always be powerful sources of grace, that the Church’s Magisterial teachings will be completely free from error, and that the Church will remain the mystical body of Christ under the headship of Our Lord Himself, as represented here on earth by His Vicar, the successor of Peter.

Electoral Pitfalls

But again, the Holy Spirit does not guarantee that the most desirable candidate will be elected pope. Nor does He prevent the electors (currently members of the College of Cardinals below the age of 80) from succumbing to other influences: Ignorance, falsehood, personal partiality, ill-conceived goals, and temptations of every kind, including those that are political and financial. There have been periods in Church history in which the papal office was essentially bought and sold through the influence of powerful political leaders or powerful families.

Among the weaknesses at work among the cardinal electors, one factor that is always present is ignorance. The cardinals, chosen from around the world, cannot in most cases get to know each other well. They must often vote based on incomplete or even incorrect impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates (each other). They will often vote for a particular candidate based on assumptions about his interests and abilities which turn out to be incorrect. Many cardinals will rely primarily on the impressions and advice of others in whom, wisely or unwisely, they place their trust.

All of this is historically obvious, considering the many deficient men who have been elected to the papacy over the centuries. A great number of popes have been singularly holy (81 have been canonized and there are causes for canonization for fourteen others), but among the 171 who have not been canonized there have been some who did not work out so well, owing either to circumstances beyond their control or to their own weaknesses and sins. A few examples:

  • Pope Liberius (352-356): Under political and theological pressure from Arians, Pope Liberius condemned the leader of the orthodox, St. Athanasius. To get off the hook, he also signed an equivocal statement that could be interpreted in either an Arian or a Catholic sense. He did endure exile with some courage, but he was the first pope after St. Peter who was never recognized as a saint.
  • Pope Stephen VI (VII) (ca. 896-897): Also living in a period of political turmoil and influence in the Church, Pope Stephen had the body of one of his predecessors (Pope Formosus) exhumed and put on trial. Then he condemned him, stripped the corpse of its vestments, cut off two of its fingers, and threw the body in the Tiber. (The discrepancy in numbering the popes named Stephen has arisen because six men have been elected and taken the name of Stephen, but only five of them actually lived long enough to serve as Pope. Numbers were not used until the tenth century.)
  • Pope St. Celestine V (1294): This holy monk was an inept administrator. He resigned as Pope amid turmoil six months after his election.
  • Pope John XXII (1316-1334): One of the ill-fated Avignon popes, John XXII expressed the false opinion in sermons and letters that those who were saved did not enjoy the beatific vision until after the final judgment. However, he did not teach this magisterially, and later he retracted his opinion.
  • Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503): This was the famous Borgia pope, elected through the influence of a powerful Italian family, and guilty of both nepotism and fathering children by his mistress. Other popes elected in the Renaissance period indulged in various forms of opulence and/or conducted wars to further their interests. Serious reform did not set in until Pope Paul III called what would become the Council of Trent, the decisions of which were implemented by Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572).
  • Pope John Paul I (1978): We may presume it was not his fault, but the first John Paul died after a papacy of just 33 days. Here, perhaps, we can get an inkling of Divine Providence at work: The most memorable things about him were his smile and his attraction to the works of Mark Twain, and his death cleared the way for the election of Pope St. John Paul II at an extraordinarily dangerous time in Catholic history.

More popes could be listed; the point is simply to illustrate that there are no guarantees.

Divine Providence

Of course, Divine Providence is at work in everything that happens in both the Church and the world. We know that nothing occurs without at least the permissive will of God, who is so far above us in capacity that He has no difficulty at all in turning everything to His ultimate purposes. Being outside of time, God sees everything “at once”, so to speak. He is not confused or thrown for a loop; nor does He have to “readjust”. Rather, His Providence encompasses everything according to His own plan, without at all impeding human freedom.

We seldom recognize how it is that bad things serve God’s purposes, but we are not completely ignorant either. We know that present evils are not somehow good because they are encompassed by Providence, and we can often see in our own lives how what is bad can serve His purpose. This last point is true because each thing that affects us provides a fresh occasion to respond in a way that increases our union with God. Often, indeed, hardship and loss can push us in this direction more easily than a smooth ride. So too can our very sins. I refer again, as I do so often, to St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).

Finally, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is continuously active and certainly knows what He is doing—even when His graces are refused. Sometimes we can see a pattern, or at least imagine a good outcome, but without proclaiming it as certain. Just as the quick death of John Paul I cleared the way for the election of one of the greatest popes in history, it is also possible that our present cardinals will regard the current pontificate as a frightening object lesson in allowing Christainity to serve the secular values of the declining West.

First-hand experience of this pontificate may prove to be a powerful secondary cause. Will the next conclave turn to the young and vibrant churches? Will the cardinals call the successor to Pope Francis out of Africa? Only God knows. But the Holy Spirit does not tire, nor does Christian hope disappoint. Our job is to pray, work and trust.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 06, 2017 1:54 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the article. Indeed, I have often wondered about what were the cardinals thinking when they elected Cardinal Bergoglio. His election suggests that they were distracted by more secular concerns and did not pay enough attention to the Holy Spirit.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 04, 2017 7:06 AM ET USA

    Somebody needed to say this, so thank you! While "the current pontificate as a frightening object lesson in allowing Christainity to serve the secular values of the declining West" would be an invaluable lesson, perhaps the greater lesson is the institutional&moral chaos unleashed by a subjective approach to morality that violently severs action from culpability (e.g., consequentialism, relativism, "discernment"). OTOH, there's more than a little commonality in subjectivism&secular values. Yes?

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Mar. 04, 2017 12:16 AM ET USA

    I can just hear the cardinals saying to themselves as they voted for Cardinal Bergoglio: "A Jesuit from Latin America for pope. What could possibly go wrong?"

  • Posted by: polarhide2365 - Mar. 03, 2017 11:10 PM ET USA

    Your considered advice helps the "greatly confused" such as myself. I particularly enjoyed being reminded that a papal conclave is not infallible when selecting a Pope. Your Biblical quotes are a great reminder and great consolation to me too. Praying for the Pope's intentions has a much stronger sense of urgency now. It is our only way through this mess.