Habemus Papam

Conspiracy Theories Behind Pope Francis’s Election

Backstabbing! Secret deals! Holy grudges! Rumors are flying about how Pope Francis really got elected. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports from Rome on who's feeling snubbed. 

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty,AFP

Even before the white smoke had settled in St. Peter’s square after the election of Pope Francis on Wednesday night, rumors were already swirling around Rome about what really happened inside the Sistine Chapel during the super-secret conclave. As the mainstream press wrote profiles of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and his journey to the papacy, Vatican experts were whispering about backstabbing and secret deals that went down under Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling.

On Thursday morning, Italians woke to screaming headlines about betrayals and dietrologia, a popular Italian phrase for conspiracy theories about what’s really going on behind the scenes. The most popular theory as to why Bergoglio was elected was put forward by La Stampa’s esteemed Vaticanista Giacomo Galeazzi, who wrote that Italian frontrunner Angelo Scola was “betrayed by his countrymen on the first vote.” According to Galeazzi, the top Italian cardinals in the Roman Curia held “grudges” against Scola and undermined his chances of winning in the first round. Namely, according to Galeazzi, Vatican secretary of State Tarciso Bertone and the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, were “ridiculously hostile” towards Scola, who they saw as a threat to their power. Citing an unnamed source, Galeazzi says Scola was banned because of “ancient jealousies and rivalries.”

The Vaticanista from Corriere Della Sera, Massimo Franco, instead theorized that Bergoglio’s win was a compromise to give a nod to the strength of the Latin American faithful and show that the Vatican was willing to at least try out someone from another part of the world. At the same time, the election of Bergoglio, whose father was an Italian immigrant to Argentia, pacified those who wanted either a European or Italian pope. Another front-runner, Odilo Scherer from Brazil, reportedly did not do well at all in balloting. As the Brazilian-born son of German immigrants, Franco says he was too much of a carbon copy of Benedict. And two German popes in a row would surely not sit well with Italians, whose anti-German sentiment has been underscored by the recent European financial crisis in which Italy is seen as the weak underdog to Germany’s strong economy. At the age of 76, the Francis papacy won’t last decades, so giving the job to a Latin American could be considered a “trial run” to see how it works. Franco also wrote that his sources hinted that a deal was made in which Scola would instead be given the secretariat of state portfolio, effectively giving him the task of doing the dirty work of reforming the Roman curia without the reward of a pontificate.

Another rumor floating around Rome is that the cardinals who had wanted Bergoglio, who was a runner-up to Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, finally got their way. And that Bergoglio’s supporters had held a grudge of sorts during Benedict’s eight-year reign and were hell-bent on putting their man in the papacy.

Many more sources who allegedly spilled the secrets of the Sistine Chapel said the strong American bloc supported Bergoglio because he was “of the Americas” and represented a geographic region that has yet to be represented in Rome. The Americans reportedly also liked the fact that he is virtually untouched by the scandals that have rocked the church, which means he has a better chance of cleaning house once he is installed in the Holy See. Of course, he has his own baggage to bear with--allegations that he was a bit player in Argentina’s “dirty wars”--but his name has never been affiliated with either the predatory priest child abuse cases or Vatileaks, which have cast dark clouds over the church’s credibility.

In fact, one of the first orders of business Francis will have to deal with is just what to do about the red-covered two-volume report commissioned by Benedict to investigate the source of the documents leaked by his butler to an Italian journalist last year. Unlike so many cardinals in the conclave, Francis won’t find any reference to his own wrongdoings in the dossier. Instead, he is expected to make major changes in the way the Church does business, which could prove unfavorable to many prelates in power. And if Francis’s actions during his first 24 hours as pope are any indication, he is planning to buck the status quo. After his appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica, he refused to be held above his peers. Instead of taking the special papal car with Vatican plates from the Sistine Chapel to the Santa Marta commune, where the cardinals were cloistered during the conclave, he shunned the private vehicle and rode back in the shuttle bus with the rest of the cardinals. When he received the cardinals in the Sistine chapel, he refused to sit in the throne, but instead stood as all 114 cardinals congratulated him. And when he went to his titular church in Rome to pray on Thursday morning, he again rode in an ordinary car instead of the papal limo. After mass, he stopped by the priests’ house where he had stayed before the conclave to pick up his luggage pay his bill. No doubt, as pope, he could have had someone take care of those pesky details for him, but he said he did it himself to “set an example.”

But perhaps the most telling tale to come out of the conclave is from the post-election dinner on Wednesday night. According to the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, his fellow cardinals toasted him and applauded his papacy. He then thanked them and, raising his own glass, joked, “May God forgive you for what you have done.” No doubt several cardinals who will be most affected by a thorough curial housecleaning were thinking the same thing.