Pope and Change: An Atheist’s Guide To Vatican Decision 2013

Pope Benedict XVI is resigning today, an event which will be closely followed by a conclave to determine his successor. I have inexplicably been following this with some interest.

Several news sources both secular and religious have tried to provide me with information on the potential successors without success. The articles tends to be a bunch of pictures of identical-looking old guys in red robes, which then go on to point out that this old guy in red robes was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but this old guy in red robes was head of the European Congress of Bishops, whereas this old guy in red robes was head of the Pontifical Council for Justice.

Some stories do classify them as either “liberal”, “moderate”, or “conservative”, which sounds more promising. But they never quite give any hint of what these terms could possibly mean, as all the cardinals seem about equally opposed to homosexuality and abortion and women priests and as far as I can tell everything else.

Proooobably there are aspects of this which are fascinating for Catholics, but as an atheist, I want two things from a Pope.

First, I kind of want him to be progressive. I have also accepted this will never happen*. For a while I thought I could kind of get away with hoping for relative progressivism, like rooting for the guy who was stuck in the 18th century over the guy who was stuck in the 15th century. But the differences between them seem so slight as to make this a dangerous game. And it seems sort of like a form of cultural imperialism to demand the head of a religion I don’t believe should parrot my views and ignore the views of his religion’s actual members.

But second, and less controversially, I want him to be hilarious. “Pope” is a funny word. Everyone knows this is true, even if they don’t admit it. And the Papacy itself tends to involve a person who looks like Emperor Palpatine going around in a huge hat saying silly things and mumbling prophecies of doom. I want someone who can carry on that legacy.

I understand it’s not always an unalloyed good to mock what is holy. But if something makes a claim to holiness, and falls short, and does it in a really funny way, such that you can still take good-hearted cheer in the bungled attempt without trying to mock the idea of holiness itself – well, I think that’s all in good fun.

So I’ve been reading through the biographies of some of the important cardinals and, while looking for evidence of their strong opinions on important issues, I’ve mostly just been collecting interesting or bizarre facts about them. And I thought that just in case any other atheists also wanted to know which of the papabile cardinals were most hilarious, I might as well turn it into a blog post.

Since this doesn’t solve the “all papal candidates look alike” problem, I’ve also replaced their pictures with a picture of someone else whose name sounds like theirs. To, you know, help keep them separate in my mind.

Cardinal Angelo Scola https://slatestarcodex.com/blog_images/pope_scola.png
Country of Origin: Italy
Odd Professorships Held: Professor of Contemporary Christology, Professor of Theological Anthropology
Position on Abortion: Pro-life
Key Quote Indicative Of His Intellectual Prowess: “Would not Husserl’s reduction, together with the critique of constituting intentionality, rise up in protest against such a notion of foundation? On the other hand, to say that the foundation is already in place is not to reduce it to a ‘supreme being’ that can be adequate, as an object, to the conceptual representation of a subject, as naive realism would have it. Could the foundation, so conceived, stand up to Heidegger’s well-known critique of onto-theology?” (source)
Key Quote Which Is Also, Confusingly, Indicative Of The Intellectual Prowess Of The Same Person: “Having abandoned the Christian faith, and disappointed by the claims of Enlightenment reason, [non-believers] find themselves defenceless before reality. To-overcome this anguish they resort to magic, which would allow them to gain the protection of occult powers, and they do not refrain from seeking an alliance with these same powers of evil. [But] participation in satanic sects and cults leaves man ever more defenceless before Satan. In this sense it can be supposed that those who belong to satanic sects risk becoming more easily the prey of realities such as witchcraft, the evil eye, diabolical disturbances and demonic possession.” (source)
Possible Scandals: ● His mentor, Emanuele Severino, was censured by the church for teaching “neo-Parminideanism”
● Seriously, there are still people who believe Parmenides around? Man, if you’re going to get in trouble with the Church for teaching heterodox philosophy, why would you choose the one philosopher who’s even worse than what the Church already believes?
Probability of Secretly Being A Vampire: Low
Probability Of Election Precipitating The Apocalypse, According To Questionable Prophecy By Medieval Irish Saint: Low


Cardinal Peter Turkson https://slatestarcodex.com/blog_images/pope_turkson.png
Country of Origin: Ghana
Background: Son of a carpenter; this is expected to play well in the Vatican
Position on Abortion: Pro-life
Key Quote “Conditions exist for definitively going beyond a Westphalian international order in which the States feel the need for cooperation but do not seize the opportunity to integrate their respective sovereignties for the common good of peoples. Of course, this transformation will be made at the cost of a gradual, balanced transfer of a part of each nation’s powers to a world Authority and to regional Authorities, but this is necessary.” (source)
Possible Scandals: ● Showed sketchy anti-Muslim YouTube video at important conference; video later turned out to be totally fake
● Lack of long-form birth certificate meanswe can’t be sure he’s really from the Vatican
Curse of Ham
Probability of Secretly Being A Vampire: Low
Probability Of Election Precipitating The Apocalypse, According To Questionable Prophecy By Medieval Irish Saint: Moderate to high


Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco https://slatestarcodex.com/blog_images/pope_bagnasco.png
Country of Origin: Italy
Odd Professorships Held: Professor of Contemporary Atheism
Position on Abortion: Pro-life
Key Quote: “Why say no to forms of legally recognised co-habitation which create alternatives to the family? Why say no to incest? Why say no to the paedophile party in Holland?” (source)
Possible Scandals: ● Keeps getting death threats because of above quote.
● That whole “Professor of Atheism” thing really is kind of suspicious
Probability of Secretly Being A Vampire: Moderate, but I might just be saying that because of the picture
Probability Of Election Precipitating The Apocalypse, According To Questionable Prophecy By Medieval Irish Saint: Low


Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone https://slatestarcodex.com/blog_images/pope_bertone.png
Country of Origin: Italy
Odd Professorships Held: Professor of Special Moral Theology
Celebrity Endorsements: The ghost of Pope John Paul II, in a dream
Position on Abortion: Pro-ch…no! Wait! Pro-life
Key Policies for Papacy The Cardinal is a huge soccer fan and used to give amateur commentary on local matches. He has suggested the Vatican participate in international soccer, stating that “we could, in future, field a team that plays at the top level, with Roma, Internazionale, Genoa and Sampdoria” and that “If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad”. He later claimed to have been joking.
Possible Scandals: ● Cardinal Bertone is accused of lying about the text of a secret apocalyptic prophecy to cover up a part where Rome is declared to become the throne of the Antichrist
Probability of Secretly Being A Vampire: Low
Probability Of Election Precipitating The Apocalypse, According To Questionable Prophecy By Medieval Irish Saint: Low – but if he’s already covered up one apocalyptic prophecy can we really trust him on this one?


Cardinal Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert, Count von Schönborn https://slatestarcodex.com/blog_images/pope_schonborn.png
Really? Yes
Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia/Austria
Born In Ominous Castle Upon Hilltop? Yes
Odd Professorships Held: Professor of Dogmatics
Position on Abortion: Pro-life
Key Quote: “The modern world needs badly to hear this message. What frequently passes for modern science —with its heavy accretion of materialism and positivism— is simply wrong about nature in fundamental ways. Modern science is often, in the words of my essay, “ideology, not science.” (source)
Possible Scandals: ● Might have maybe kinda once condemned sexual abuse, proving him to be obviously crazy and unfit for the position.
● Impeccable anti-science credentials, but does he hate gay people enough?
Probability of Secretly Being A Vampire: The only part of that question stopping me from saying “100%” is the word “secretly”
Would I Still Probably Prefer Him To Anyone Else On This List? Signs point to yes


1: When I was young, I read a passage from an alternate history book where James Joyce joins the priesthood, was eventually elevated to the papacy under the name Pope Stephen X, and reformed the Church, Irish-style. It had a lasting effect on me and you can find it here. Search for “The Stephenites were the most radical of all the Catholic clergy.“

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25 Responses to Pope and Change: An Atheist’s Guide To Vatican Decision 2013

  1. Personally, I’m rooting for Vatican soccer team guy.

  2. Mitchell Porter says:

    This is a fantastic post – written in jest, but a better glimpse of the intellectual world of the cardinals than anything you will find in mass media. (Scola is clearly the one for me.) All that curiosity and intellectual flexibility, previously used to steelman the Time Cube, turns out also to be suited for unearthing high weirdness buried in an institution rendered falsely familiar by media overexposure. Perhaps you could profile the members of Iran’s Guardian Council next?

  3. Deiseach says:

    Okay, I was prepared to be offended, and I was all ginned-up to be outraged, but darn it, I have to laugh.

    I think you are misrepresenting some positions of my church slightly, but then again, name me someone you personally admire and respect as an atheist, and I will do my part for ecumenism by pointing and laughing at them (especially if you post a link to them wearing their academic robes).

    Now, as for your candidates: why no mention of Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, who was a bookies’ favourite? Though personally I don’t think there’s any chance of getting a North American elected as pope, either from Canada or the United States.

    (1) Cardinal Bertone – no chance. He is (up until 8 p.m. Roman time this evening, when all officers of the Curia lose their positions under the sede vacante) Secretary of State and according to insider gossip, has made too many enemies to get a sufficient number of votes.

    (2) Cardinal von Schonborn – again, no. Made a few wibbly* statements that I think will count against him; in this context, you may be interested in what Wikipedia has to say re: his statement about evolution:

    “This statement created considerable controversy, including public criticism of Schönborn’s views by the director of the Vatican Observatory, George Coyne, SJ, who pointed out that Pope John Paul II’s declaration that “evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis” is now “a fundamental church teaching” and a response by Catholic physicist Stephen Barr in the Catholic periodical First Things, to which Schönborn in turn replied.”

    (*It’s a technical theological term. Really.)

    (3) Cardinal Turkson – I don’t know. He gave an interview to the British newspaper “The Guardian” in which he seemed (though this may just have been the way the article was written up) to be canvassing for the position, and the College of Cardinals generally don’t like those who are publically seen to be that ambitious (secret canvassing and arranging voting-blocs is another matter).

    (4) The Italians. I’m lobbing them all in together, as they are the single largest national grouping in the College. However, being Italian (sorry to all those of Italian ancestry whom I have just insulted) there is no way they will all row in behind one candidate so they will be split into various factions and so won’t wield as much influence as they could. I’ve seen a lot of talking-up of Cardinal Scola, but I can’t see it myself. I don’t know, it depends if the College think it’s time to return to having an Italian, or if they continue to go farther afield.

    I don’t have any particular favourite myself in mind (last conclave, I would have loved to see Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria get it, but he’s too old this time and there are no second bites at the cherry) and I have no idea who we are going to get.

    Anyway, thanks for using the term “pro-life” instead of “anti-abortion rights” or even “abortion foes” which reputable(!) newspapers seem to prefer using nowadays. Yes, we may have funny hats and a Secret Space Program (what did you think the Vatican Observatory was really doing? It’s run by Jesuits, after all!), but at least our leader – unlike your President – can’t draw up secret kill lists and take out those Catholics he deems to be acting against the Church by means of overseas drones that will blow everyone at a wedding or a funeral out of their socks, kids and all.

    • Fadeway says:

      A bit off-topic here, but there’s an atheist president? Why did nobody ask for my vote?

      Fun post, I’m for Apocalypse Pete.

      • Deiseach says:

        The President of the United States of America is an atheist? Well, I knew he was a typical modern mainline Protestant, but I didn’t think he was quite that progressive in his theology – funny, he never spoke approvingly of Bishop Spong that I can recall 😉

    • nemryn says:

      The joke I’ve heard is that there’s no chance of a USian getting elected, because all the cardinals are afraid he’d take his orders from Washington.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Now, as for your candidates: why no mention of Cardinal Ouellet of Canada?”

      Because I looked into him and he was boring as heck.

      “You may be interested in what Wikipedia has to say re: his statement about evolution”

      I originally had a much more anti-evolution quote by him up, but I took it down because after reading his essay in more detail I thought it was unfair. He seems to not necessarily disbelieve in evolution, but just want to deny all the philosophical ramifications of it. I think he did a pretty good job justifying his position against both the critics from both the right and the left. He’s still wrong, but he’s wrong in complicated philosophical ways the media can’t and won’t cover.

      “Yes, we may have funny hats and a Secret Space Program”

      I look forward to hearing whether you succeed in your goal of landing a caelonaut on Heaven by 2025.

      “But at least our leader – unlike your President – can’t draw up secret kill lists and take out those Catholics he deems to be acting against the Church by means of overseas drones that will blow everyone at a wedding or a funeral out of their socks, kids and all.”

      Are you kidding? He can send people to hell! What’s a couple of drone strikes compared to eternal torment.

      • Deiseach says:

        Sorry, the Pope can’t send anyone to Hell; if you’re thinking of excommunication, that’s not exactly how it works. Even though there may have been clergy and indeed popes who thought they really could do just that, they were wrong.

        The exercise of the power of the keys is what I think you’re thinking of; “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. That is, the remission of sins (and contrariwise, withholding of absolution).

        However – and this is the big “But…” – that only applies in cases of incomplete or insincere contrition. Nobody, not even God, sends someone to Hell, we put ourselves there through (as is required to be in the state of mortal sin, which is the sin that kills the life of grace in the soul) (a) grave matter (b) full knowledge and (c) free consent, with the addendum of (d) obstinately and persistently engaged in.

        Read Dante and the “Divine Comedy” for the correct take on it, even back in the 13th century:

        (a) Canto XXVIII, “Inferno”, online summary: Dante meets a soul in the circle of the punishment of the Evil Counsellors (those who gave bad, wicked or intentionally deceitful advice), Guido da Montefeltro, who joined the Franciscans in repentance but was asked by the pope of the day for help in overcoming his enemies; the pope assured Guido that he could absolve him of any crime or sin in advance but, as Guido found out at death, this was not so –
        “Afterwards, when I was dead, Saint Francis came for me: but one of the Black Cherubim said to him: ‘Do not take him: do not wrong me. He must descend among my servants, because he gave a counsel of deceit, since when I have kept him fast by the hair: he who does not repent, cannot be absolved: nor can one repent a thing, and at the same time will it, since the contradiction is not allowed.’ O miserable self! How I started, when he seized me, saying to me: ‘Perhaps you did not think I was a logician.’ ”

        (b) Canto III, “Purgatorio”, précis from an online students’ notes site:

        •Manfred’s story: At the battle of Benevento, he received two fatal wounds. Right before dying, Manfred repented of all his sins and gave himself completely to the merciful God. Unfortunately, his enemy was Pope Clement IV and he excommunicated him after death. So this Pope’s man dug up Manfred’s body – originally buried at Benevento – to move it outside papal territory. But, here’s the rub: Manfred snubs the Pope’s authority, claiming (from first hand experience) that God forgives EVERYONE who repents – in spite of the Pope’s sentence.

        Er – you can see from the above that I spend way too much time explaining Catholic theology on other blogs, that I get all my theology out of “The Divine Comedy”, a work I love perhaps too much, and why I am currently tearing my hair out at the announcement that Dan Brown is bringing out a new novel called “Inferno” using Dante and his poem as the plot device for his professor of made-up-discipline to ‘solve’ the ‘mystery’.

    • Li says:

      I’d have to agree with the assesment on the Italian bloc. The recent ‘Vatileaks’ controversy has nearly assured that Bertone will not be a contender, and the apparent fractionalization seems to have discouraged a return to an Italian Papacy.

      Really, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious front runner… though Cardinal Turkson might be the leader. Perhaps we might end up with an Eastern Rite or Asian Pope?

  4. Joe says:

    I’m thinking Tagle or Turkson. But I think Tagle has the diplomatic edge but might be too young.

    • Nick says:

      Tagle was also elected far too recently to the College to be a candidate this time. Maybe next time around.

  5. Sniffnoy says:

    Wait, that webpage is the entire text of the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, all on one page?

  6. Fnord says:

    Is Cardinal Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert von Schönborn actually the Count von Schönborn? Wikipedia seems to think he’s the second son of Count Maria Hugo Damian Adalbert Josef Hubertus von Schönborn, and that the current count is Count Johann Philipp Maria Karl Herbert Ferdinand von Schönborn (presumably the Cardinal’s elder brother).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Wikipedia lists him as (Graf von) Schonborn in his name, which I believe is the German translation of “Count of Schonborn”

      • Fnord says:

        I admit I know aproximately nothing about the rules of addressing German aristocracy. However, the official House von Schönborn website doesn’t give him the honorific. From their page on “The Family of the Counts von Schönborn today”(http://www.schoenborn.de/haus_heute.html):

        “Christoph Schönborn ist derzeit Kardinal und Erzbischof von Wien” (Christoph Schönborn is currently Cardinal and Archbishop of Vienna)

        “Paul Graf von Schönborn ist Schirmherr des 1958 von seinem Vater Dr. Karl Graf von Schönborn ins Leben gerufene Collegium Musicum” (Paul Count von Schönborn is Patron of the Collegium Musicum, brought into being by his father Dr. Karl Count von Schönborn in 1958).

        “Teresa Gräfin von Schönborn leitet das Landgut Casa Cadaval in Portugal” (Teresa Countess von Schönborn heads the Casa Cadaval estate in Portugal).

        • Deiseach says:

          I don’t know what the German usage would be, but the equivalent of a count in the British Isles would be an earl, and the courtesy title for the younger son of an earl would be “The Honourable So-and-So”.

          So, if he were English, he would be “The Honourable Christopher Schonborn”:

          “In the United Kingdom, all sons, daughters and heirs of viscounts and barons (including the holders of life peerages, but not judicial “Lords” who are not peers) and the younger sons of earls are styled with this prefix. (The daughters and younger sons of dukes and marquesses and the daughters of earls have the higher style of Lord or Lady before their first names, and the eldest sons of dukes, marquesses and earls are known by one of their father’s or mother’s subsidiary titles). The style is only a courtesy, however, and on legal documents they may be described as, for instance, John Smith, Esq., commonly called The Honourable John Smith. ”

          This is also why the criminal in the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Red-Headed League”, is so punctilious about being correctly addressed; he is the grandson (legitimate or not? We never find out, though I think it’s hinted in the wording that either he or his father was born the wrong side of the blanket) of a royal Duke, as he informs the coppers:

          “You’ll see your pal again presently,” said Jones. “He’s quicker at climbing down holes than I am. Just hold out while I fix the derbies.”

          “I beg that you will not touch me with your filthy hands,” remarked our prisoner as the handcuffs clattered upon his wrists. “You may not be aware that I have royal blood in my veins. Have the goodness, also, when you address me always to say ‘sir’ and ‘please.'”

          “All right,” said Jones with a stare and a snigger. “Well, would you please, sir, march upstairs, where we can get a cab to carry your Highness to the police-station?”

          • Fnord says:

            I know only slightly more about British honors than German ones. But if it’s only a courtesy, wouldn’t it be superseded by his status as a cardinal (which, now that I think about it, might be the reason he’s addressed the way he is in German, too)?

  7. Athrelon says:

    Of course, there is good reason for a a progressive to prefer a progressive Pope even while respecting the institution (though not its ideas). A sufficiently progressive Pope would heal the schism between the papacy in Rome and the papacy in New York, and wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

  8. Oligopsony says:

    The Jacobin Catholics at National Catholic Reporter have actual beat reporters, and so they have the best coverage I’ve been able to find. If nothing else their prosopography of the papabiles is great reading.

  9. Benkern says:

    Gianfranco Ravasi’s stuff connecting the Church with mainstream intellectual debate, I think, makes him quite interesting.


  10. Damien says:

    “And it seems sort of like a form of cultural imperialism to demand the head of a religion I don’t believe should parrot my views and ignore the views of his religion’s actual members.”

    Well, err, AIUI if the Pope matched the views of his religion’s actual members then he’d be considerably more liberal. Certainly from a Western European or American (North and South) perspective. Lots of use of birth control and abortion and support for gay marriage among Catholics…

  11. gwern says:

    Sad to say, the new pope (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was not on this list.