Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek, writing in the New York Times, has what is actually a fairly decent assessment of how the media tries to guess how the conclave will vote and how often they’re wrong. And wrong not just in who will be elected, but also wrong in guessing what kind of pope the new pontiff will be. John XXIII was supposed to be a caretaker, not engaging in “any major change in policy.” Oops. His successor was going to be either a “progressive” or “conservative”, but then Paul VI was dubbed a “moderate,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Instead he issued “Humanae Vitae,” a conservative reformulation of the Church’s teaching on life issues. Yet, the rest of his pontificate was marked by a spiritual and administrative torpor, leading to many abuses. Pope John Paul II was both unlooked for in his election and underestimated after.
In retrospect, two errors made consistently in interregnum papal journalism stand out. The first is how often the press has overlooked lines of continuity - how the innovations of a new pope were usually prefigured by his predecessor. Pius XII began planning a council before John XXIII convoked Vatican II; from his own writings we know that John’s spirituality was of a more conservative kind, and it seems unlikely that he would have embraced all the changes that some progressives claimed were in his “spirit.” Likewise, it was the cautious Paul VI who abolished the Latin Mass in favor of the vernacular and gave sanction to liberation theology. And it was John Paul I - not his illustrious successor - who first dropped the papal “we” to speak in his own voice.
The second mistake the press tends to make is labeling any new pope as either conservative or progressive. The job of a pontiff is to conserve the patrimony of faith; “progressive” is often a matter of style rather than theology or politics.
Woodward’s own conclusions about the next pope are ironically prone to the same mistakes he catalogs in previous papal elections. The one thing I think we can be assured of regarding the next pope is that he will be unlike anything we expect and that whatever we think are his top priorities, he will probably see them much differently.