"Habemus Papam": Tell Me More!

Today's guest post comes from Charles Strauss, who recently completed a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellowship at Valparaiso University and is now an assistant professor of history at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, MD.  You can find more details about his research and teaching interests in political and religious history at www.charleststrauss.com.

By Charles Strauss

How did you pass the time or procrastinate this week?  Did you prepare for Selection Sunday by getting a head start on your "bracketology"?  Maybe you celebrated Timberweek on NBC?  Were you one of the 100,000 who joined the Save Google Reader campaign?  Or perhaps you were like Rush Limbaugh and settled in for some quality time with the Vatican Smoke Cam, brought to you by CBS News?

The Sweet Sistine
On Wednesday morning, Rush aired his discomfort with the 24-hour news coverage of the Catholic Church's papal election by reporters who, in his opinion, were really just "mocking" the whole thing.  He complained that Wolf Blitzer on down were "demeaning" and "cheapening" an event that Rush, though not a Catholic, remembered watching as a kid.  The next morning, after the College of Cardinals had elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as pope, Rush was the one doing the mocking, as he snickered at the "Drive-By Media" for reporting on Pope Francis' conservative theology.  He failed to mention Cardinal Bergoglio's defense of Catholic teaching on "the preferential option for the poor."

You did not have to share Rush's "Drive-By Media" shtick to notice that a lot of people were talking about the conclave this week - and not just cable news, app developers, EWTN, and U.S. Catholic theologians, historians, and journalists (too many for hyperlinks).  I know at least one Catholic history professor who added, "I'll be there unless there is white smoke," to all invitations and appointment responses once things got started in the Sistine Chapel.  Everyone, especially television, print, and online media, seemed to be interested in the next Bishop of Rome.  And once the commentators' second or third tier papabile, Cardinal Bergoglio, addressed the audience in St. Peter's Square as Pope Francis I, coverage and commentary went wild (again, too many for hyperlinks).

In many ways, this is understandable given the excitement around the first Latin American pope, the number of Catholics worldwide (1.2 billion), the role of the Vatican and the institutional Catholic Church in the world, the sexual abuse scandal, and the largely unsurprising 2005 papal conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the truly surprising (unless you are a diehard follower of papal news and writing) resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.  However, after spending some time this weekend with America's Historical Newspapers and Historical Newspapers, as well as this site, a comprehensive index of papal conclaves by John Paul Adams at Cal State University-Northridge, I am  convinced that Americans have been enamored with papal election news since at least the 1840s.  Moreover, though small in number at papal conclaves, American cardinals and members of the faithful at home have played no small role in the process and outcome of many papal elections.  More on both of these fronts after the break.

As one of my graduate school professors liked to say, "let's look at the sources."  What follows is a chronology of a selection of the anecdotes that I discovered during a weekend of research and hope to assemble into a coherent and publishable argument some day:

  • Election of Pius IX, June 14-16, 1846: During a precarious period in the history of the papal states, American newspapers from the Boston Atlas to the North American to the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette published daily reports from the Vatican.  The Boston Atlas sent a correspondent to Rome who was watching for any sign of the identity of the new pope, even analyzing the size of the shoes that a tailor brought into the Vatican along with new pontifical robes (Boston Atlas, August 7, 1846).  The Western Continent devoted space to extolling the significance of the conclave: "On no other occasion does the world see assembled more astute wisdom, more cultivated talent, more religious purity, than in this important college" (June 24, 1846).  Nearly all the American papers explained the election process in detail and ended by praising the newly elected Pius IX (a.k.a. Pio Nono) as the Alexandria Gazette did: "He posses a high character for piety, virtue, and talent, and is said to be one of the most liberal men of all Italy."  However, not all were so kind; only a few weeks before the conclave, the Boston Recorder had published a screed by Horace Bushnell aimed at the ailing Pope Gregory XVI (May 24, 1846).  One additional item to note is that this coverage most often appeared not on the front page but in the "Foreign News" section.
  • Election of Leo XIII, February 18-20, 1878: In addition to eulogizing the late Pio Nono, American papers continued their minute-by-minute reporting of the conclave.  The New York Herald sent a reporter to Rome who spent three months "studying the question of the succession to the papal throne in all its phases" in the final days of Pius IX's pontificate (February 8, 1878).  Once Vincenzo Pecci was elected and chose the name Leo XIII, the American press began their reporting of the new pope in its usual way - by describing his physical features: "His eminence is tall and thin.  His features have an aristocratic stamp, and are characterized by great finesse.  He has a resemblance at once to Voltaire and Richelieu.  The voice strikes one as disagreeable at first, it is so nasal in its tones but one soon gets accustomed to its peculiarity, owing to its fullness and resonance" (New York Herald, January 16, 1878).  A number of American Protestants also praised the new pope, such as Prof. David Swing, the former pastor of Chicago's Westminster Presbyterian Church (Daily InterOcean, February 22, 1878).
  • Election of Pius X, July 31-August 4, 1903: The newly elected Pius X received an American group as his first audience, explaining that the United States was "the blooming youth of Catholicism" (Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1903).  He also had a lengthy conversation with Baltimore's Cardinal James Gibbons, who represented the United States for the first time at a conclave, about Catholicism across the Atlantic (New York Times, August 8, 1903).  Gibbons' name was also floated as a potential papal candidate that year.
Speculations on the Papal Horserace started as early as 1914
(image from the Detroit Free Press, August 22, 1914)
  • Election of Benedict XV, August 31-September 3, 1914: Cardinal John Farley of New York was the only U.S. presence at the conclave, which commenced as Europe faced World War I.  The other U.S. cardinals, Gibbons of Baltimore and O'Connell of Boston, did not make it in time for the vote; however, many in attendance (including the new pope) lauded the United States as an important force for peace in the world.  Some even saw Cardinal O'Connell as a potential papal candidate - if only he had arrived in time (Boston Globe, August 30 1914).
  • Election of Pius XI, February 2-6, 1922: Cardinal O'Connell of Boston again attempted to make it to Rome in time for the conclave but failed, arriving just as Pius XI was delivering his benediction for the people assembled at St. Peter's.  The new pope eventually extended the required pause between the death of a pope and the opening of the conclave from ten to fifteen days to allow for North and South American cardinals to travel to Rome, explaining that he "always [had] great respect and admiration for the American people because of their great activity and youthful courage and for the energy with which they tackle things" (Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1922).  
Papal Ballots (New York Times, February 2, 1922)
  • Election of Pius XII, March 1-2, 1939: An unprecedented four North Americans attended the conclave, thanks to O'Connell's mad and well-publicized dash to Rome in 1922.  The Nazi's control of Germany loomed large over the papal election and Pius XII's relationship with Hitler's Germany remains controversial to this day.
  • Election of John XXIII, October 25-28, 1958: Prior to the conclave, the first-televised papal funeral (for Pius XII) took place; U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (whose son Avery Dulles would eventually be named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II), John A. McCone who was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Clare Boothe Luce represented the United States.  Six hours after Angelo Roncalli was elected pope, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page full color picture of Pope John XXIII and included an article on how they pulled off such a feat (October 29, 1958).  
  • Election of Paul VI, June 19-21, 1963: In addition to the typical kind of U.S. coverage of the event (minute-by-minute reporting, assessment of Pope's decision to continue Vatican II reforms of predecessor, and details of the new pope's physical features), the press covered President John F. Kennedy's meeting with the new pope in Rome (Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1963).
  • Election of John Paul I, August 25-26, 1978: This conclave marked the first time that Catholic columnists such as Gary McEoin and Fr. Andrew Greeley started offering commentary in the Washington Post and Boston Globe (and that list has only expanded over the subsequent three conclaves).  It was also the first time that U.S. cardinals, such as John Krol of Philadelphia, were described as having a role in the "wheeling and dealing" behind the conclave doors (Washington Post, August 16, 1978).  Finally, television cameras were allowed into the conclave quarters in the days leading up to the voting for the first time (Guardian, August 23, 1978).  A group called The Committee for the Responsible Election of the Pope, comprised mostly of American lay Catholics, was a visible presence outside of the conclave and on television as its members tried to disseminate information about papabili and suggest possible ways to reform the process. On the first full day of his pontificate, John Paul I spent thirty minutes with U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, who gave the new pontiff an inscribed first edition of Life on the Mississippi; Mark Twain was said to be the pope's favorite author. John Paul I broke protocol to meet with Mondale longer than any other foreign representative and they discussed a future meeting with President Carter. Of course this meeting would never be as John Paul I died 33 days later (Atlanta Daily World, September 8, 1978).
  • Election of Pope John Paul II, October 14-16, 1978: Given the suddenness of the death of John Paul I, there was less press speculation before the October 1978 conclave.  That said, many argue that the U.S. cardinals, particularly John Krol of Philadelphia, played an influential role in drawing votes for Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, the first non-Italian pope chosen in 455 years and a person with whom most of the American cardinals were well-acquainted.
The press has been an important factor in papal conclaves for at least the last 160 years.  So it is a good sign that Pope Francis seems to be at ease with journalists and is also respectful of their work and their individual backgrounds and beliefs (see Commonweal associate editor Grant Gallicho's excellent reporting).  American cardinals also understood this and were the first and only, for a time, participants in the conclave who were giving regular press conferences.  And despite the small number of Catholic cardinals who have participated in papal conclaves (several times there were none at all), Americans - perhaps because of the nature of our politics at home or our relative newcomer status in the Catholic World - have been an enthusiastic and distinct presence at papal conclaves for nearly two centuries.  Time will tell what the papacy of the so-far magnanimous Francesco of Argentina will mean for the Catholic Church in the United States, but it is clear that papal news will continue to consume Americans' attention from time to time, even during Timberweek.  


Tom Van Dyke said…
As one of my graduate school professors liked to say, "let's look at the sources."

With all due respect, direct quotes from Limbaugh would have been helpful here. It's become de rigueur to dis him as a troglodyte, but second-hand reports of what Limbaugh supposedly said often differ from the reality. Transcripts are available at his website daily for just that reason.


"It's just the way it's being covered cheapens the whole thing. It's as though it's just... I don't know. I can't describe it any better than that. I guess part of it is that I just know over half the journalists covering this hate this institution. They despise religion and the Catholic Church.

They think religion and the papacy is a joke in the first place, and so they're over there, and in a way mocking this whole thing. Over half them don't even have a rudimentary education and knowledge/understanding of what this is and why it takes place and why it is meaningful to people. It's just the latest popularity contest, just the latest celebrity news. Of course to the people involved, it's far more than that. There it is: "Smoke Expected This Hour."

Over on another thread here @ RiAH blog


Ralph Keen of the University of Illinois-Chicago writes

What Philip Jenkins a decade ago called the last acceptable prejudice sadly persists in academe: anti-Catholicism is alive and well, and Catholic students are rightly suspicious of many faculty.

which is little different than Limbaugh's observation.
Charles said…
Thank you for reading my post Tom Van Dyke.

I wanted to draw your attention back to my sentences on Limbaugh, which are hyperlinked to the transcript of his show that you quoted and that I read before writing my post.

Limbaugh first argued that 24 hour news, which had everyone staring at a smokestack for two days, somehow "cheapened" the experience. I heard similar kinds of reflections by people who were amazed by the attention that the conclave was receiving. And I think those are honest reactions. But this motivated my survey of how the American press has covered conclaves from years past. I've discovered that they have been wildly fascinated with papal elections and new popes since at least 1846.

Limbaugh later argued that "over half of the journalists" covering the conclave - those he referred to as the "Drive By" media - "despise[d] religion and the Catholic Church." I have found no substantial evidence to support that claim either in the current news coverage of the conclave and selection of Pope Francis, or in the coverage of previous conclaves. While anti-Catholicism has existed and does so still in some sectors, the way in which the American media has treated papal elections cannot be explained solely using an anti-Catholic narrative, which is what I was trying to demonstrate in my post.

Finally, Limbaugh is a political commentator and was casting the conclave in the terms of American political ideology. He argued that the "liberal media" did not like the pope's teachings on contraception, abortion, and gay marriage and that they should have known that any Catholic pope would hold these teachings because they are Catholic teachings. It was interesting to me that Limbaugh has not mentioned (as of today) Pope Francis' commitment to the poor and his criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, which the American media has largely praised.

Perhaps the big story here is that Americans, many Catholics included, interpret and judge leadership in the Catholic Church in American political terms of "conservative" v. "liberal," which never hold water when we are confronted with Catholic leaders from Bishop John Carroll to Dorothy Day to Pope Francis I.

Thanks, Charles Strauss
Tom Van Dyke said…
Thx, Charles.

those he referred to as the "Drive By" media - "despise[d] religion and the Catholic Church." I have found no substantial evidence to support that claim

Again, how to substantiate that claim, I would not know. That's why I cited

Ralph Keen of the University of Illinois-Chicago writes

What Philip Jenkins a decade ago called the last acceptable prejudice sadly persists in academe: anti-Catholicism is alive and well, and Catholic students are rightly suspicious of many faculty.

My own observation---not closely mind you---of Limbaugh re CNN was that he was correct, that the smoke--the sizzle not the steak--- was most important, the horserace, and further that the narrative was focused on disappointment that the new pope was no more "progressive" on sex, drugs and rock'n'roll than the last.

Limbaugh's canon, if you're familiar with it, is strikingly devoid of theology and more "drive-by" on abortion and gay marriage than focused on it. Those who get their Limbaugh via Media matters might be surprised at the reality.

Which is rather my point.

Limbaugh has not mentioned (as of today) Pope Francis' commitment to the poor and his criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, which the American media has largely praised.

Uh huh. First, it might come as a surprise that Limbaugh and others who vote Republican are quite concerned about the poor and failing too. The difference is in the policies to best assist them, or even help them rise above poverty.

that the American media waoud "praise" Pope francis "concern for the poor" comes as no surprise, but it would be best to keep in mind Benedict XVI's Caritas in verite, that we should certainly be concerned for the poor as a matter of justice if not Christian charity:

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”

the Church---or "Christianity" if you will---does not and cannot side with Marx or Rawls or Milton Friedman or Adam Smith, although I submit history and reality are to date on the side of the latter.

Charles, thx for your response. I do think Limbaugh is a bit ill-used in these things, and my primary point of order is that if one wants to refudiate him, he should be quoted directly.

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