A U.S. Priest Plays Teddy White in the Vatican, Exposing the Politics of Picking a Pope

UPDATED 07/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

To the world's 724 million Roman Catholics, 1978 was a year of upheaval and shocking transition. First came the death, in July, of Pope Paul VI, then the tragically shortened reign of his successor, John Paul I, who died after only 33 days in the papacy. More startling still was the precedent-shattering election of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope since 1522. For Father Andrew Greeley, 51, prolific author, newspaper columnist, professor at the University of Arizona and sociologist at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, the turmoil of the papal elections presented a unique opportunity to observe the intrigue of Vatican politics. Recently Father Greeley elaborated on the result of his investigations, The Making of the Popes 1978, with PEOPLE correspondent Linda Witt.

Why did you decide to write this book?

The making of the Popes had all the drama of a good story. I thought it would show the humanity of the church, which is too often covered over by attempts to look pious.

Have papal elections always been conducted in secrecy?

No. Secrecy in the conclave didn't even exist until 1903, when it was instituted to counteract the influence of the Austrian emperor, who claimed the right to intervene in the election. We don't have an Austrian emperor anymore, and secrecy simply doesn't fit into the modern world. The faithful feel excluded from the processes of the church. Also, there is a great danger that because the cardinals vote in secret, they won't be as prepared as they should be.

Were they prepared during the 1978 conclaves?

The cardinals are a closed group of men who have spent their whole lives strictly in ecclesiastical activities. Their average age is over 60, and they are extremely cautious and conservative. In many cases they are totally out of touch with the world. There were between 30 and 35 cardinals—about one-third of those voting—who had no notion of what was going on, and who drifted from candidate to candidate depending on who seemed likely to win.

What is the election process like?

Very much like a good old American political convention. It has all the excitement, all the drama, all the dynamics of compromises and coalitions and vote totals going up and down.

What was it like inside the conclaves?

Physically it was very, very uncomfortable—only one grade above a prison where the inmates aren't considered very dangerous. The cardinals were each issued one little bar of soap, a wash bowl and pitcher, a tiny red lamp, a little chair and a seminarian's bed—narrow and hard. There weren't enough showers and toilets. It was stuffy and not air-conditioned. The cardinals had lots of reasons to get their business over with and to get out of there as fast as they could.

Is there politicking on the floor of the Sis-tine Chapel during the voting?

No, all they do in the chapel is cast their ballots. Each cardinal writes a name on a slip of paper, walks down the aisle and drops it into a chalice. It's a very dull process. Cardinal Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II, even brought along a Marxist philosophical journal to read during the balloting.

Were the 13 U.S. cardinals particularly active behind the scenes?

No, the Americans put the strictest possible interpretation on the rules of secrecy laid down by Pope Paul VI, and avoided all conversation about the elections even among themselves. They are decent men—fair, kind and dedicated. Unfortunately, they believed that everyone else, including the frantically campaigning Italian Curia, was playing by the same rules. Like so many other cardinals, they were lambs being led to the Curial slaughter.

Still, in your book you point out that the Curia—the powerful Vatican bureaucracy—failed to elect its candidates at either conclave. Why?

A majority in the conclaves felt the Curia had lorded it over them too long. There had been layers and layers of people in between the Pope and his pastoral cardinals—very much like Haldeman and Ehrlichman in the Nixon White House—and they had acted as if they were running the church.

Why were the Italians so resistant to the idea of a non-Italian Pope?

It was partly a matter of national pride, though a number of Italians did want a change. In the first conclave, Cardinal Luciani, who became John Paul I, voted for a Brazilian, Cardinal Lorscheider, to the very end. The voting for Cardinal Wojtyla in the next conclave was led by Cardinal Pellegrino, the retired archbishop of Turin. Surprisingly, many non-Italians were reluctant to break with tradition because they feared that only an Italian Pope would understand the delicate nature of Italian secular politics.

You disapprove of the current selection process. What would you prefer?

In the early church, the Pope and all the bishops were elected by the people of their diocese. The cardinals would go into St. Peter's and pick a man and bring him out. If the faithful applauded, he was the Pope. If they booed, the cardinals went back inside and tried again. I'm not suggesting we revert to that, but I would like to see a gradual sharing of power with the rest of the church.

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