Will gay Catholics benefit when the 116* voting-age cardinals lock themselves into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope? Reports of in-fighting, scandal, power-shuffling, and worldwide disgust with the hierarchy seem to indicate that the cardinals will want a serious change of direction in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI, but will they be able to get out of their own debilitated way, and will they find among themselves a hero? Will a new pope end the vehemently anti-gay crusades of recent years? I have settled on a short list of five “papabili,” including two Americans, one Argentinian, one Italian, and one Austrian. Among them are men who might improve the lot of gay Catholics worldwide.
Getting the news about Benedict’s intention to resign the papacy brought me back to the days when lunch with a cardinal was not an extraordinary entry in my calendar. The ones who knew me by name represented a broad spectrum of personalities and skills. The saintly Noe who was my mentor and patron, the gossipy Oddi, the gentle Rugambwa, the steely Benelli, the intelligent Hume, the no-nonsense Bevilacqua, and the amusing Pignedoli who ordained me to the priesthood are among the deceased. I will not list the larger number who are among the living and whose names give weight to my unique perspective on the papal election as a married gay ex-priest who spent some years in Rome.
What do cardinals have in common? They are men who may be relied upon to do with extraordinary efficiency what they are asked to do. They are men who are entirely willing and eager to set aside personal desire and opinion and to complete their assignments with excruciating expedience. If a pope asks an American cardinal to take a strong and clear position against same-sex marriage, he will entirely subjugate the fact that as a gay man, he ought to be doing the opposite. When a pope asks an American cardinal to control a bunch of unruly nuns, he will obey despite his admiration for the work and spirituality of those ladies, and he will stifle his feeling that such women ought to be given sacramental passage into leadership in the church.
Above all else, a cardinal is an old man who, with rare exception, is not merely celibate, but is also a virgin. I suspect there is a turning point in the life of a cardinal when he begins to cherish his personal sacrifices as virtuous accomplishments of stewardship that far exceed what God actually demands of him. It may be his lifelong virginity rather than his gay panic that makes a cardinal intolerant of those who give themselves permission to enjoy a satisfying sex life. I also suspect that when virgin cardinals pass from this earth, they blanch when, during their first lunch with Jesus, they receive the news that he would not have minded their having had sex at least a few times, if only to gain an understanding of the passions of their human flock.
In short, a cardinal is a praise-hungry janitor who will keep shiny the ornaments of Catholicism even when the boss is nowhere in sight because he knows well the gospel story of the wise and foolish virgins who did not know the hour of their master’s return (Matthew 25:1-13).
Given this overpowering desire to do the homework assigned by someone in authority, all cardinals feel anxiety about exiting the Sistine Chapel as pope and suddenly answering to no higher earthly authority. What does such a man do after having spent his entire life following orders? Most of the time, he fearfully reverts to the formula at hand: the traditions, the canon laws, the commandments and catechisms of Catholicism. He decides that to do otherwise might be a disaster equivalent to suggesting that the earth orbits the sun or that human evolution is God’s creative method.
This conclave may be like others in the 2000-year history of Catholicism when the cardinal elected pope is charged by his confreres to be a repairman who will not just clean house but will restore confidence in the integrity of the hierarchy. That task will overshadow the man’s ability to appeal to Africa or the Americas, for example. He will have to form a strong and admirable curia. He will have to issue sincere apologies to women, nuns, gay priests, abuse victims, and gay Catholics. He will have to strengthen those apologies by the establishment of rules and procedures for rectifying mistreatment and inequality.
With these tasks in mind, I think the following cardinals may have the credentials, personalities, and communication skills to emerge from the conclave as the chosen repairman.
1) Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who sometimes wears the brown robes of a Capuchin friar, would be a strong antidote to the befuddled and Prada slipper-wearing Benedict. He has a strong record of cleaning up priest-pedophile scandals, but of equal importance is the fact that he has a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature. When the cardinals gather in Rome, he will be able to converse with many of them in their own languages. They will be impressed and inspired by him. A first-round ballot will certainly include his name, and in the absence of another strong contender, he will prevail and the conclave will be short.
2) New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has the personality needed to counteract the heartless demeanor of Benedict. Affable, gregarious, and portly in a way that will remind many of beloved reformer Pope John XXIII, he will also appeal to the conservative cardinals because of his rigorous upholding of traditional church teachings about gay sex, marriage, and women’s reproductive rights. I knew Dolan personally during my years in Rome. He has many gay priest friends. Although I have been frequently disgusted by much of what he says, I think that given ultimate authority over the Catholic Church, he will surprise everyone. I think that in his heart, he actually likes women and would want to see women priests. I think he would end the anti-gay battles in cautious increments. I think he would favor a married priesthood. I like him. If the 33 new world cardinals got behind Dolan on the first ballot, that showing will impress the Europeans and may even sway the Italians, who appreciate his strong love of Rome and Italian cooking.
3) Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, with Italian parents and Vatican experience, will appeal to the Italian cardinals who represent a sizable block (28) and who resent having surrendered the papacy to a foreigner twice in recent years. Adding the Latin American vote (19) and the Spanish vote (5) would mean 52 votes, which would be a strong showing in the first round of ballots. A two-thirds majority (78 votes) is needed for election.
4) Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is a smart, sophisticated, and princely man who started his priesthood as a Dominican monk. Communicative and appealing in many languages, his track record on social issues is not as rabidly conservative as those of his brother cardinals. We have a mutual friend who tells me he is gay and that he would be good for gay Catholics. I cannot verify this, but I would not be dismayed by his election. This Youtube video tells us almost everything we need to know about him. He walks the line between honoring real Christian love and traditional Catholic teachings. For this cardinal, love trumps catechism. Listen to what he says about same-sex attractions at the 3:45 mark. If I had a vote in the conclave, I'd probably be fussing with my ballot to make sure I spelled his name correctly. In the conclave, Schönborn might be considered if there is an impasse or a deadlock on the first ballots.
5) Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi is an academic and an archeologist who may emerge early as the champion of the Italian cardinals. Twenty or more votes would bring him to the attention of the other cardinals, and he would become a serious contender in the next ballots. He would bring a lyrical style of communication to the papacy and a level of appealing spiritual thinking that has been missing in the Benedict years. His record vacillates between conservative and liberal statements, making it hard to predict how beneficial he would be for gay Catholics or women.
You may wonder why I have not included Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, the darling of those who seek at least the visual opposite of the bleached and sepulchral Benedict. While an African cardinal would inspire the missionary church and give a good face to the hierarchy’s recent efforts to plug evangelization, Turkson is not the man for the job. His career has not prepared him for the rigors and diplomacy of the papacy. He sees cultural issues in primary and sometimes false colors. He confuses pedophilia and homosexuality which he thinks does not exist in Africa as it does elsewhere. If the cardinals elect a naïve soul like Turkson, they will be doing him a great disservice. He will be eaten alive.
The other U.S. cardinals are a mixed bag, including the ridiculous dragon Cardinal Raymond Burke, the aloof diplomat Cardinal Justin Rigali, the obsequious Cardinal James Harvey, and the elegant and clever Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Our time in Rome overlapped. Some of them are gay.
Do I admire any of these men and could I ever accept their papal leadership? You’ll be surprised to know that my answer is a hopeful yes. Among the Americans are the brilliant Dolan and Wuerl. They are men who see beyond the hierarchy’s checklist of obligations. I suspect they appreciate the Jesus whose maverick behavior and story-telling ignited the lives of his first followers. I disagree vehemently with much of what these two cardinals say daily, but I know why they do it and I believe that, given the opportunity, their leadership might surprise us all. They do not fear women. They do not fear gay men. Give either of these custodians the keys to the kingdom and I suspect they will use them not to lock the doors but to unlock them.
*The Scottish cardinal, beset by scandal, says he will not attend the conclave.
This story originally appeared on 10ThousandCouples.com and has been republished with permission.
Tony Adams is a writer, editor, retired CFO, and Roman Catholic priest. He is Senior Features Correspondent with South Florida Gay News and is the editor of the 20-member queer arts and culture blog Queer New York. He is also a member of the editorial board of Bilerico. His writing has been featured in the 2010 and 2011 issues of PRIDE Magazine. Tony and husband Chris have been together almost 30 years and were married in Connecticut in December 2008. They divide their time between homes in Fort Lauderdale and Manhattan.