August 1, 2019 – Catherine Pepinster, the former editor-in-chief of the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, published two years ago a book in which she claims that the British Foreign Office may have played an important role in the 2013 papal election that resulted in Pope Francis’ election. Based on many interviews with key figures such as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker, she claims that the UK “played a crucial role in the election of the Argentinian destined to shake up the Catholic Church.”
In her 2017 book The Keys and the Kingdom. The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis, Pepinster deals with the growing relations between Rome and England over the course of several decades, especially also in light of the history of the Reformation and the particular situation of Catholics in England.
Pepinster sees that, with the election of Pope Francis, a new sort of relationship is developing. She states that “Britons have more influence in Rome today than they ever have done before in the last 100 years.”
The reason as to why the British government would take interest in the election of a new pope is also explained by the author. She quotes here Nigel Baker, the Ambassador to the Holy See, who said in 2014: “We have an embassy to the Holy See because of the extent of the Holy See soft power network, the influence of the pope, and the global reach and perspective of papal diplomacy focused on preserving and achieving peace, on the protection of the planet, and on bringing people out of poverty.”
Pepinster recounts in her book how the British government, through the person of the British ambassador to the Holy See, was instrumental in setting up a meeting where key cardinals networked with lesser-known cardinals to promote Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio for pope.
Calling Bergoglio’s election a “very British coup,” Pepinster’s work suggests that a secular power was involved in the election of a pope.
Pepinster writes that already under Pope Benedict XVI, there was a time of “consolidation for the relationship between the British and the papacy.”
“That growing connection between the papacy and the United Kingdom,” she adds, “was in many ways a recognition of the usefulness of the two entities’ own global networks. It is worth examining next how, in March 2013, one occasion did bring these networks together to such dramatic and significant effect that it would change the Catholic Church’s course of history.”
Let us now examine how the British were to a certain extent involved in the election of Pope Francis, a man “who would shake up not only the Catholic Church but its relations with the world, and who would try to reshape the institution of the papacy itself.”
First looking back at the 2005 election of Pope Benedict, Pepinster quotes a Tabletarticle from that time which pointed out that the cardinals who had come from less important and wealthy countries had been left out of the private meetings of cardinals that are traditionally used as means of building an opinion as to who the next Pope should be. The Tablet then wrote that “some [cardinals], especially from the developing world, were living at the outskirts of the city and had no entourage, let alone press secretaries”; they therefore “would have been unaware of the intimate gatherings of cardinals over whiskies or quiet lunches to discuss strategies for the forthcoming election.”
Without naming names, Pepinster goes on to describe how, in 2013, “there was concern that the developing world cardinals could be left on the sidelines again,” since they do not have at their disposal their own countries’ embassies in Rome which they could use for receptions or for dinners.
Further describing the situation in 2013 after Pope Benedict’s resignation, the author says that “factions had already opened up” among the cardinals, with the curial cardinals being split into two camps – one in favor of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the other in support of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
“Meanwhile,” she continues, “four leading European cardinal reformers – Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Walter Kasper, Godfried Danneels and Karl Lehmann, all of whom were thought to have backed Jorge Bergoglio in the 2005 conclave – realized that these splits afforded them an opportunity.” They had supporters for their cause among Latin American and some influential Europeans voters, she explains.
Pepinster quoted papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and his statement that there were 11 African and 10 Asian cardinals, and that “for the ones from historically English-speaking nations, the British cardinal, Murphy-O’Connor, was a reference point, and key to bringing them onside.”