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Thankfully, electing a pope is not like electing a president.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 19, 2013

I couldn’t help but reflect on these two points, made some distance apart, in Phil Lawler’s sensible reassurance about the Pope’s unscripted statements: 

[1] Pope Francis is a very intelligent man, and he was chosen by his fellow cardinals to be Roman Pontiff because they recognized his sound pastoral judgment…. [2] During the conversations leading up to the conclave that elected him, then-Cardinal Bergoglio commanded the attention of the cardinal-electors with a quick, insightful summary of the needs of the universal Church. In effect he presented a plan, and the conclave endorsed it.

There have been periods in Church history in which the influence of key noble families has put undue pressure on cardinals (who were generally drawn from various noble families themselves). But precisely because the modern papacy has no worldly power, and popes and cardinals are no longer bound up in the political and financial concerns of various groups of nobility, the papal election process is remarkably capable of producing outstanding results.

What we have is a body of men, the College of Cardinals, who have been appointed by previous popes because (in the main) of exemplary service to the Church. This quality of service has, in turn, depended on considerable gifts of spirituality, intelligence, organizational ability, and prudence. The College then elects the pope from among its own members, selecting a man about whom they know a good deal, and often know personally, and one whom they have significant reasons to trust.

Compare that with an election cycle in a modern “democratic” state. The election cycle unfolds through the intense activity of self-interested parties and worldly media which work very hard to manufacture myths of intelligence and competence for a field of candidates chosen by party maneuvering. All of this is done at considerable, even astronomical, expense. It is, in effect, a clever marketing campaign. Most actual voting among “the people” is done in ignorance of anything but the prevailing myths. Moreover, it is fair to say that the intentions of the electorate are, on average, considerably less pure than those of lifelong servants of the Church.

No system, of course, is foolproof. There are bad cardinals, and doubtless the College as a whole is prone to characteristic faults. But there is something to be said for true aristocracy when we can get it, and the bottom line is that this contrast in election procedures is rather frightening. If we compare the moral and intellectual quality of the popes of the twentieth century with the American presidents of the twentieth century (or the political heads of any other democratic nation), I suspect our study will justify serious concern—and I do not mean for the Church.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 20, 2013 12:55 PM ET USA

    Fascinating, isn't it, how, just as the powers and principalities of this world are in ascent, the Papacy loses all claim to earthly power. Fascinating, too, that the Papacy has survived the onslaught of every political and military power that has waged war against it.