Risks of betting on the papal election


Form guideClaud Cockburn, the perceptive British journalist, once remarked with characteristic assurance that Catholics could never run a book on the papal election. It would be blasphemy, he said, because Catholics believe that the Pope is chosen by the Holy Spirit.

I found the comment intriguing. It was factually counter-intuitive because Catholics I knew were prepared to bet on anything, even the chances of an echidna making it across a highway.

Certainly most Catholics would have regarded betting on the papal election as in bad taste. This was family, so betting on the Pope would be like running a book on whom your sister would marry.

But to call it blasphemy is a large claim. It implies that the Spirit alone rides the winner past the post, that all the form the runners have previously shown and all their training are irrelevant, and that the Holy Spirit inspires only those who are on the winner, not those on losing mounts.

It is true some Catholics take this approach to statements by popes and councils, arguing that the Spirit inspires their decisions and acts only through those who favour them. The minority who have reservations about their wisdom are deprived of the Spirit, except when they come to accept the majority decision. The Spirit continues to inspire Church leaders to state authoritatively the meaning of Council texts and define their historical context.

This approach does affirm the Christian belief that the Holy Spirit works within the Church, including through the bishops and Pope. But it effectively puts the Spirit at the disposal of the Church teachers, who can write their slate of winners for the Spirit to sign off on.

Reflection on the lived experience of Catholics suggests the Spirit works in the Church and in all the relationships that make up the daily life of the Church, including those between teachers and hearers. The relationships also include casual and more formal conversations between Catholics about faith, the debates between Catholics of different views, in the response to Church discipline and statements as well as in the making of statements.

So in papal elections the Spirit will be in all the prayers, conversations, cabals, persuasion, self-effacement and self-promotion that are part of any human election, and will be with each of the candidates before and after.

The fact that the Spirit works through so many broadly political human activities suggests that it would be theoretically possible to run an informed book on the papal election without insulting the Spirit. What remains impossible, however, is to read the working of the Spirit in the making of a pope or in the state of the Church.

This is evident from the tenor of the scriptural stories about the Holy Spirit. They are not about control but about newness and unpredictability. The Spirit is wild.

It drives prophets to speak against anointed kings, is found not in the resounding proclamation but in the shadow of silence, leads Jesus into the desert to confront Satan, picks Philip up by the hair and puts him into a slow chariot with the Ethiopian ambassador, shocks devout Jewish followers of Jesus with the possibility God may be calling the uncircumcised, makes Paul abandon his prudent missionary strategy and go straight for Europe.

The Spirit works within the ordinary processes of the Church, but is never confined or controlled by them.

More radically, the Spirit bears the face of Christ. Its work follows Jesus' trajectory in which life comes out of his execution as a criminal. We are as likely to see the Spirit bring life through exile as through stable government, through disgrace as through good reputation, through diminishment as through growth. Neither exile, disgrace nor diminishment are signs of a dying church; nor are growth, honour and power signs of a living one.

It follows that when a new pope is elected we can say that the Church has been in the good hands of the Spirit, but not that the Spirit has left the Church in good human hands. We can bet on who will be pope. We cannot bet on whether he will be a good or great one. On such things the Spirit is inscrutable. For this reason good taste and generosity of spirit dictate that Catholics have fellow feeling with the newly elected Pope and pray for him.

As for betting on the papal election, that is a mug punter's game. Not because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit. But because, as in the Melbourne Cup, there is little relevant form. If you lock people up to pray and to talk with one another at length about the best candidate, and ensure that there is no stable talk, the market is uninformed. So bolters can emerge and run away with the race.

And that, we might think, would not be displeasing to the Holy Spirit. 


Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street and a policy officer for Jesuit Social Services. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict, resignation



submit a comment

Existing comments

Is it also just chance Andrew that you have drawn the analogy between Papal elections & "The sport of Kings "? Given it would be generally perceived as the most corrupt sport in the world.

john kersh | 20 February 2013  

One is in no doubt that this mob of old men will call on the Holy Spirit to guide their prayers and deliberations. Just as well, really. But you will make easy money if you wager that the next pope will be Catholic, of the male gender, over fifty-five years of age, unmarried, capable of speaking several languages especially Italian, and will be of sound theological mind. He must also know how to talk to the Ethiopian Ambassador, or rather, know how the Ethiopian Ambassador is expected to talk to him. This narrows the field considerably.

NOT A BETTING MAN MYSELF | 21 February 2013  

What sane and inspired form in this article. Thanks from the grand daughter of a lovely horse trainer.

Pauline Kennedy | 21 February 2013  

There is another racing phrase that needs to be considered when Papal elections are held: a boat race, where the result is set up a while ago and everyone (the jockeys) has their riding instructions to ensure the predicted and desired outcome. Benedict XVI has known he's been likely to retire for some time. The signs were all there. he's hand-picked the majority of the competitors in the field. This is the first election in the history of the Papacy where a living ex-Pope is remains in good standing with his colleagues and is still around as a presence and a force. Noone can suggest he hasn't spoken to some of them about his hopes for his legacy. Is there a boat race on?

Michael Kelly | 21 February 2013  

There is only one safe and secure winning bet that can be placed on the papal election. Namely, that against all odds, Paul Collins will have his book of predictions on the new pope on the shelves within a time frame impossible for any other writer, as with his book on Benedict.

john frawley | 21 February 2013  

I pray for a pope with the intestinal fortitude of St Pius Xth, to face down the neo modernists who have ravaged the Church, even as Pius muzzled the demented integrist sodalitium pianum.[Yet,Pius had a fine Pontifical Commission that did not condemn, so much as exact solid evidence for latest biblical insights. ]] Recall St Pius Xth saved the Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem and brilliant biblicist Pere Lagrange op from rabid integrist 'mentevacantists'! I pray for a Pius XII, who dealt in ace fashion with evil leaders with his dexterous skills of effective romanita diplomacy while pronouncing undiluted perennial truths of Faith and morality "Pius XII is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.The pulpit whence he speaks is more than ever like the Rock on which the Church was founded, a tiny island lashed and surrounded by a sea of war. [New York Times '42] And recall again Pius Xth, who forbade veto rights of secular leaders re conclaves that eg blocked Cardinal Rampolla[a ridiculously suspected Mason] from papacy instead of Pius XTH[states butt out of church matters! ] And finally, a Pope like JP2 who reconfigured eastern Europe AMDG; and a battler for life, Paul VI

Father John George | 21 February 2013  

Andrew, I suspect that betting on the next pope is the closest most Catholics will get to having a say in whom they would like the next pope to be. Sad to say this but it is certainly so. A more democratic church is what we should be aiming for where everyone's voice is deemed important. And to that end I was pleasantly surprised to see the news clip, amid all the discussion currently engendered by the papal election, about Catholic theologians and scholars calling for more deomocratic structures within the church - www.churchouthority.org Not only have prominent theologians added their name to the Catholic Scholars' Declaration on Authority (in the Church) but ordniary punters like you and I can add our name in support!

John Edwards | 21 February 2013  

I pray for a pope who does something more than face down, muzzle, forbid, block and battle other human beings. I also pray for a pope who does more than Pius XII did for the lonely Jewish voices crying out of the silence of the continent of Europe in 1942.


Make that two quiet voices... Isn't it a blessing that thanks to the intervention of the Holy Spirit we shall not necessarily get the Pope that we deserve...?

Margaret | 21 February 2013  

Those making bets on the next pope forget the old saying -"Go in as a pope, come out as a cardinal"

nick agocs | 21 February 2013  

"A Quiet Voice Replies...", missed the "positives" and has swallowed the anti Pius KGB disinformation campaign,exposed by soviet defector, 2 star general in Soviet secret-police Mihai Pacepa. Antecedent to Khrushchev approved KGB lies, Pius XII was honored by the world for his actions in saving countless Jewish lives in the face of the Nazi Holocaust. His death on October 9, 1958 brought a moment of silence from Leonard Bernstein while he conducted at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Golda Meir, future Israeli Prime Minister and then Israeli representative to the United Nations, spoke on the floor of the General Assembly: “During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and commiserate with the victims.” Among the Jewish organizations in the United States alone that praised Pope Pius XII at the time of his death for saving Jewish lives during the horror of the Nazi Holocaust were the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Synagogue Council of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the American Jewish Congress, the New York Board of Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the National Council of Jewish Women.

Father John George | 21 February 2013  

When we have a degree of "branch-stacking" of which the NSW Right would be proud, does it really matter whom the cardinals elect? What we do know is that the Holy Spirit will still be with us, the ordinary punters, and that we will survive. What the elderly men in bizarre costumes in Rome come up with bears little relevance to Christianity.

Peter Downie | 21 February 2013  

Have to be a bit careful about a democratic election of the pope across the vast multinational electorate that Catholicism represents. Just look at the pitiful sort of govenance that democratic elections have given numerous current Western democracies,sadly with our own high on the list of failures. Pity the spirit, who apparently decides the outcome of a papal election according to some, is unlikely to intervene in the election in September

john frawley | 21 February 2013  

I find this article almost impossible to follow. I thought the highest source was the Queen Spider.

Buck | 21 February 2013  

The Pope is selected by Cardinals. There is nothing particularly mystical about it. They may feel that they are guided by the Spirit to choose against their political allegiances, but if they do so let's put it down to their consciences or the charisma or sound argument (for whatever theological/political/social reason) of those who would convince them. As such, Papal betting is not necessarily a mug's game. For example, a punter/bookie may believe that Arinze's age might factor into the Cardinals' decision-making process and this may seem a good reason to lengthen his odds. If the Cardinals are learned, holy men, then surely there's no shame in becoming Pope because you were seen as the best choice by a group of learned, holy men. To paraphrase Monty Python, the spirit "don't enter into it". Otherwise we would have to attribute the likes of Benedict IX to the Holy Spirit too. They are all men. They are all fallible, even the pope.

Buck | 21 February 2013  

Andy, a wonderful/refreshing read. Marie

Marie O'Connor | 21 February 2013  

Too right Peter! Only a bunch of yes-men from whom to choose. All hand-picked by the last pope. Just more and more of the same to come. Sad to see and as you say irrelevant to anything Jesus desired.

Bernadette | 21 February 2013  

The Spirit is wild. So bolters can emerge and run away with the race? Religion Assignment Year 9 : ( A ) Who was Martin Luther and why did he come into contact with the Catholic Church? ( 5 marks ) Martin Luther was a German priest and professor of theology. Born on the 10th of November ,1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, his father was determined to have him educated as a lawyer. After being sent to a series of schools during 1497 and 1948 ( An education which he later compared to purgatory and hell ), he earned his master's degree at the University of Erfurt, at the age of 23. He then enrolled in a law school, in accordance to his father's wishers, but on the 2nd of July, 1505, Luther was on a house back during a thunderstorm when a lightning bolt struck close to him while he was returning to university after a trip home. Fearing for his life, he cried out "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!" which, having survived the storm, he saw as an unbreakable vow. As a result, he left law school, sold his books and entered a closed Augustinian friary on the 17 of July...

Game Theory | 22 February 2013  

You never know; you never know. Think of John 23rd, the interim pope. Maybe the wonderful Cardinal Martini from his present position close to the heart of God will help to pray the right man in.

Anna Summerfield | 22 February 2013  

Blessed J23 an excellent choice for his time,but not for today. There are too many who would misinterpret him again to dig a deeper grave for the Church. Any wonder His last words. [with enlightened foresight of future devastation] as reported by Jean Guitton, the only Catholic layman to serve as a peritus at the Council, were: "Stop the Council; stop the Council." In any case, it is a fact that Pope John signed not one document of the Second Vatican Council. Though that great council was endorsed later by Paul VI and even +Marcel Lefebvre, in 4th line, http://sspx.agenda.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/signture.gif [yet mangled by 'post-gone-sillier' dissenters abounding.]

Father John George | 22 February 2013  

The next pope, will be a man, who knows how to kneel before God. As he who kneels before God, can stand before anyone.

Bernstein | 23 February 2013  

Do we know who will be the next pope? No, though, as Cardinal George Pell said, God will get the decision right. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vvWKyz60f5M

Myra | 24 February 2013  

Similar Articles

A pope for hard seasons

  • Neil Ormerod
  • 18 February 2013

One of the major challenges facing the new pope will be to find creative and compassionate ways of addressing the issue of clergy sexual abuse. A proper response will require a change in heart and mind, to see the world through the eyes of the suffering and humiliated. Can we expect anything less from the next pope?


Ratzinger and Rowan Williams side by side

  • Andrew McGowan
  • 14 February 2013

Now that Williams has returned to academic life and Ratzinger has resigned, it is tempting to commit both their reigns to the category of failure, and debate mostly the nobility or otherwise of their inability to bend lurching structures or less gifted minds to their own wills. This would not, however, be the whole picture in either case.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up