ROME–While Washington is focusing on the arrival of fiscal doomsday– aka the sequester– the real political action is actually taking place thousands of miles away in Rome.
That’s right–the next big election isn’t in 2016, or even 2014, it will take place (probably) within the next several weeks. On Friday morning, less than 24 hours after the Swiss Guard closed the doors to Castel Gandolfo ceremoniously marking the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, the cardinals began to meet informally in Rome to discuss the process of electing the next pope. On Monday, March 4, the cardinals will begin to formally discuss the start of the conclave in daily pre-conclave meetings.
On the surface, the politics of electing a pope appear to be very different from the politics of electing an American president. There’s no polling, no ads, no field operations-basically no hard data to back up the assertions of so-called “experts.” And of course, the conclave is a closed-door process with a very limited number of seats at the table. Nevertheless, below the surface the two processes actually have a lot in common. Here’s a list of six unexpected similarities between electing a pope and electing a president.
1.) Social issues play a key role.
The importance of social issues can fluctuate in American elections based on the current economic climate, but candidates’ views on issues like abortion, birth control, health care, always play a role in the conversation. The same is true in the Catholic Church. As ABC’s David Wright reported, “the new pope will set the tone of the institution on issues of life and death: abortion, birth control, genetic medicine, euthanasia and more.”
2.) Look to the demographics.
On election night, experts look to turnout in conservative or liberal-leaning districts to ascertain which candidate might be ahead. In the papal conclave, we look to Benedict’s views, and the make-up of cardinals he helped create. Benedict XVI was viewed as a conservative leader, and many of the cardinals who will be voting in the conclave were named cardinals by Benedict. The Catholic News Service reports that only 43 percent of the cardinals eligible to vote in this conclave were created cardinals by Pope John Paul II–the remaining 57 percent were elevated to that position by Benedict XVI. Does that mean we can expect the next pope to hold similarly conservative views?
3.) The contenders play it cool.
The next presidential election isn’t for another three years–and right now if you ask any of the individuals viewed as strong potential candidates in 2016, they’ll give a coy answer about their plans (or they’ll flat out dismiss the idea.) A similar dynamic is at play in the conclave. You won’t hear any of the cardinals say that they’re interested in this job. It’s considered poor etiquette for a cardinal to outright campaign, but it’s also bad politics.
4.) The prerequisites for the jobs are limited in theory but specific in practice.
There aren’t actually that many qualifications for the papacy or the office of the president. To be chosen as pope, an individual must be Catholic, baptized and male. To be elected president, the Constitution dictates: “No person except a natural born citizen or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.”
But in practice, the net is never cast that wide. The cardinals almost always choose one of their own. And Americans almost always choose a president that has previously served in public office.
5.) Got skeletons in your closet? Move along.
Just as sex scandals have brought down American politicians, so too have they plagued potential pontiffs. In the days leading up to Pope Benedict’s retirement, reports in the Italian media that the Pope decided to retire after a secret dossier containing scandalous findings landed on the his desk seemed to overshadow any talk of Benedict’s legacy. Questions about whether certain cardinals with ties to the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the church would and should attend the conclave dominated the conversation. ABC contributor Father John Wauck told ABC News he believes that the cardinals (and the public) are looking for a pope who can put the sex scandals behind the Catholic church. Someone who has dirt on their hands–that’s going to be a strike against them.
The most important similarity– whether it’s the American people, or the conclave of cardinals under the age of 80– is that the electoral body is deciding not just on a person to lead a bureaucratic system, they’re choosing the face they will show to the world. The decision doesn’t just tell you who will lead the country or the church for a certain period of time, it tells you about that respective group’s values and visions at this particular junction in history.