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Countdown to the Conclave, Day 7: Iron Fist?

By Deal W Hudson and Deacon Keith Fournier
March 5th, 2013
Catholic Online (

We suggest that all of you following this series leading up to the Conclave join with the cardinals, now meeting, in asking for the Holy Spirit to guide their proceedings and the choice they will ultimately make.

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Our Countdown, thus far, has focused on the hostile media's message about the Conclave: "The Church must elect a progressive pope who will not follow in the footsteps of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but will finally fulfill the hopes born at Vatican II of a democratized institution, one that listens to the enlightened voices calling for women priests, more married priests, acceptance of contraception and same-sex marriage, and an end to abortion activism."

But there are other hopes for the Conclave, voices that are not heard in the mainstream media -- Catholics whose concerns, at best, are expressed publicly on Catholic radio and TV, Catholic blogs, or in emails passed virally along established pro-life, pro-marriage communication networks. These are voices usually ignored by religion writers and correspondents unless they are looking for a quote to caricature orthodox Catholics as mean-spirited and bigoted, in contrast to the justice and charity that characterizes their favorite Catholics.  

We hear these voices, and they are concerned -- in a different way -- about the future of the Church, praying that the true reform and aggiornamento begun by John Paul II in October, 1978, reaffirmed with the election of Benedict XVI April 19, 2005, will continue with the election to be held sometime in the next ten days.

These Catholics, because they are so active in the day-to-day life of the Church, know what goes on in parishes, chanceries, state conferences, and the USCCB. They are holding their collective breath, knowing there is no foregone conclusion given the deep divisions among the clergy and the bishops about the future of the Church.  

We talk to these people everyday. For example, an email exchange about the latest bit of nonsense coming out of a Catholic university, in this case DePaul University, led to the following comment last night from a friend of ours:

"This makes no sense.I hope the new pope will rule with an almost iron fist in regard to Catholic schools and Universities. They should not be able to be called Catholic if they do not support the teachings of the Church. This should trickle down to the politicians too."

We do not take "iron fist" literally, but as a metaphor for one of the more obvious needs in the Church, that all Catholic educational institutions either embrace the Apostolic Constitution  Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) or stop calling themselves "Catholic."

Local bishops, of course, have the canonical power to declare any institution or organization no longer "Catholic," as happened recently to the National Catholic Reporter. These type of decisions, call them the "iron fist" variety, do little good if the institution in question has a base of support that could care less, as is the case with NCR. 

That which is not directly funded by the chancery can continue to exists, to call itself "Catholic," in spite of opposition from the local ordinary. Thus, more a prudential perspective, the use of the "iron fist" can easily demonstrate the limits of a bishop's authority more readily than his purported power. It's our observation that bishops, including those working in the Vatican, are acutely aware of this dynamic and seek substantial change in ways that do not expose their incapacity. 

Today, 115 cardinals of the Church are meeting to determine the starting day of the Conclave and to reaffirm the rules surrounding the election, especially the special security measures that ensure the participants are cut off from communications with anyone from "outside." This is particularly important given the spectacle over the past year of the leak of papal documents by the pope's ex-butler. The dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who is leading the pre-Conclave meetings, has said the date may not be announced for a few days.

The cardinals gathered together are aware of the entire spectrum of concerns and expectations in the minds of Catholics around the world. As we outlined on our Day 1 report much of the time spent at the Conclave will be in prayer and worship: The Church, after all, teaches that Her life is directed and nourished by the Holy Spirit:

"The mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This joint mission henceforth brings Christ's faithful to share in his communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection. He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, in order to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may 'bear much fruit.'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 737).

We suggest that all of you following this series leading up to the Conclave join with the cardinals, now meeting, in asking for the Holy Spirit to guide their proceedings and the choice they will ultimately make.

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