25 February 2013

Cardinals and the Conclave

The news media has been swirling with stories on a few of the Cardinal-electors for the upcoming conclave.  As a result of criticism of his handling of child abuse allegations in his long reign as Archbishop of Los Angeles, many are saying that Roger Cardinal Mahoney should not come to the Conclave and should not vote.  Following the recent resignation of Keith Cardinal O'Brien, he has publicly stated he will not attend the conclave.  There is a sense among some that this refusal to vote is some grand act of humility.  To the contrary, it is an act of lawlessness.

The law that governs the Conclave of Cardinals called to elect the Pope, (Universi domenici gregis (UDG)) establishes guidelines about the convocation of the electors.  The law says quite clearly in paragraph 7:
All the Cardinals who are not legitimately impeded must attend the General Congregations, once they have been informed of the vacancy of the Apostolic See.
Notice the language, the Cardinal-electors "must attend".  This is not optional.  It does not say they can attend, unless they decide not to.  The only exception is for those who may be "legitimately impeded".  What exactly does this mean.  UDG clarifies this a bit later in the document:
38.  All the Cardinal electors, convoked for the election of the new Pope by the Cardinal Dean, or by another Cardinal in his name, are required, in virtue of holy obedience, to obey the announcement of convocation and to proceed to the place designated for this purpose, unless they are hindered by sickness or by some other grave impediment, which however must be recognized as such by the College of Cardinals.
In his statement following his resignation, Cardinal O'Brien gave this as his reason for failing to attend the conclave:
I will not join them for this conclave in person. I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor.
This is not a hindrance, nor is it particularly grave.  By grave hindrance means something like a Communist government threatening you if you go, or putting you in prison, or the like.  Moreover, the document is clear that the decision as to what is or what is not a "grave impediment" is not for the individual Cardinal to make.  He must submit himself to the judgment of his brother Cardinals, and they must decide whether not his proffered reason constitutes a grave impediment.

The fact of the matter is that the primary reason for the existence of the office of Cardinal is to elect a new Pope.  It is true that many enjoy other offices and functions in the Roman Curia, but the election is what defines them more than anything else.  None of the men in the conclave is perfect, and all have sinned.  But we must be guided by a commitment not to our own personal decisions, to an over-inflated sense of individualism, but to the law.  A civilized society is founded upon the rule of law, and we ought to strive to obey even when it is difficult.

I understand the impulse to want to protect others from the embarrassment of one's own mistake.  But in this case, this is not Cardinal O'Brien's decision to make.  I would argue, far from it being a laudable example of humility, it is instead an unfortunate act of lawlessness.