“It’s silly to assert this, if someone bothers to read the letter—which is really just a short note from Cardinal Dolan expressing gratitude to Ignatius Press for sending the book to the college—and if someone bothers to read the book, which says nothing about candidates or the next conclave or anything like that.”
Weigel told CNA that the book, while titled “The Next Pope,” does not actually discuss the next papal conclave. Instead, he said it attempts to reflect on how the Church, and the papacy, can continue the mission of the New Evangelization in the decades to come.
“There are no candidates discussed at all, and there is absolutely no discussion of conclave politics. Suggestions to the contrary are either ignorant (meaning someone hasn't read the book) or malicious (meaning someone has an agenda),” Weigel said July 14.
“‘The Next Pope’ suggests an agenda for the Catholic future, viewed through the prism of the Office of Peter. The book takes up Pope Francis's invitation in Evangelii Gaudium to think about what it would mean for the Church to be ‘permanently in mission,’ and the book suggests how the Bishop of Rome can empower others (including bishops, priests, religious, and laity) to be the missionary disciples they were baptized to be,” the author added.
“I also intended the book to raise the discussion of the Catholic future above the usual Twitter polemics and the all-too-abundant conspiracy theories in circulation. It's a shame that some people are evidently content to leave the discussion at that level.”
The book “draws lessons from the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, each of whom I have known personally and with each of whom I have been in serious conversation,” Weigel said.
The National Catholic Reporter said that a 1996 policy on the election of a pope, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II in Universi Dominici Gregis, “expressly forbids cardinals from discussing possible papal successors.”
In fact, while those norms do prohibit cardinal electors from making agreements regarding who they will vote for before a papal conclave, they do not forbid the discussion of candidates for the papacy, or the needs of the Church.
“The cardinal electors shall further abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons,” the document states.
”It is not my intention however to forbid, during the period in which the See is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in the document's same section.
Of his book, Weigel said “I hope it helps facilitate just that kind of reasoned, prudent discussion,” even while its focus is a set of broad reflections on the life and mission of the papacy, and the Church.
Weigel also rejected the suggestion, made by some critics, that it is inappropriate to discuss the future of the papacy, or consider possible courses of papal action to address the Church’s needs, while a pope is in office.
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“It’s ridiculous. I don't recall anyone making such a silly criticism when Peter Hebblethwaite and Luigi Accattoli wrote books about the future of the papacy during the pontificate of John Paul II.”
“And I don't recall John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis, during our personal conversations, ever suggesting that it was presumptuous for a layman to offer them counsel; which only makes sense, as they had asked me to tell them the truth as I understood it,” Weigel added.
Accattoli was a long-time Vatican journalist, retired in 2008, who wrote several books on the state and needs of the Church during the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Hebblethwaite was a laicized priest and journalist who, in 1995, wrote a book entitled “The Next Pope: An Enquiry,” that offered a sharp criticism of the papacy of John Paul II, and suggested what his successor might do.
Hebblethwaite was a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. In 2004, writer Paul Elie characterized his book as “a polemic against what Hebblethwaite....saw as the interminable misrule of John Paul II.”
Those books are not the only contribution to the genre of Church analysis, to which Weigel's book belongs, or of papal prognistication, to which Weigel's book does not.
In 2002, noted Vatican journalist John Allen published “Conclave,” which looked at how cardinal electors might weigh the factors that go into choosing a papal candidate, and that offered a list of 20 likely candidates for the office. The National Catholic Register's Ed Pentin also will publish a book this summer entitled “The Next Pope.” That book, like Allen's, but unlike Weigel's, mentions specific possible candidates for the papal office.