It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard from fellow Catholics that they think that God directly chooses the pope. Just yesterday someone said that they refused to criticize the pope because he was given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. The Church does not teach that position. According to the laws of the Church, the Cardinals choose the pope while praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If you don’t believe me, just listen to a previous pope, Benedict XVI. While still Cardinal Ratzinger, he was asked by Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for the election of a pope. His answer:

“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. . . . I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. . . . There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”

Would we really want to ascribe all of the bad popes of history to the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit still guides corrupt popes, particularly by preserving them from teaching authoritatively something false in regards to faith and morals.

Furthermore, the College of Cardinals is a human creation, not subject to any divine promise. The Church does not need to have cardinals, but it does need a process of selecting popes. The current process of electing a pope has evolved from Pope Nicholas II’s bull, In nomine Domini, establishing that the pope should be elected from the college of cardinals in 1059. Previously an election involved a difficult and treacherous balance between the nomination of secular powers, the election of the Roman clergy, and the acclamation of the Roman people. Needless to say, the history of papal elections has been varied and changeable, with the last major revisions to the rules governing the conclave coming from John Paul II in 1996, with tweaks even from Benedict XVI just before his resignation.

The purpose of this clarification is not to demean the papacy or any particular pope but to recognize that God generally acts in and through human agency in the Church. There are particular moments of divine intervention, but God calls us to the great responsibility of cooperating with Him in the life of the Church. Church leaders, including cardinals in the conclave, can make mistakes. God does not abandon us, however, but makes good come from evil, including the corruption of popes, though the remedy to evil may be painful.

Let’s redouble our prayers for the Pope and for all the Cardinals, asking for an outpouring of guidance from the Holy Spirit.