Cardinal Francis George: Conclave’s Professor X

“The names you have seen published in the newspapers make sense but we are also considering other candidates no one had discussed before.”
-Francis Cardinal George 

The American delegation has been making most of the news at the Vatican this week. Their press conferences monopolized the media, two of their cardinals are floated as potential papables, and the establishment’s ham-fisted condemnation of their antics has elevated their profile even further. Whether or not this media hype amounts to anything in conclave is yet to be seen, but it’s certainly made a splash. Until now, a lot of the attention was focused on the charismatic supposed-papables Dolan and O’Malley. However, as the circus escalates, another figure is coming into sharp focus: Chicago’s 76 year-old Francis George.

The younger cardinals may be the face of the American operation, but I increasingly suspect that George is the brains.  A hunched, bald, serious figure, George looks more like a Hollywood supervillian than a pope – but then again he’s not running for pope. What he is doing is setting himself up as a potential grand elector. Long considered the most powerful and globally-respected American cardinal, George has been the one giving the most strategic interviews this week. Before leaving for conclave he gave a surprisingly candid interview on Chicago TV, talking about how cardinals approach each other to ask about candidates. Surprisingly, he also said that the media lists of candidates were largely accurate.

Yesterday, he changed his tune – saying the lists were originally accurate, but that the list of papables is fast expanding to unreported people. This is a man who is fully enmeshed in the wheeling and dealing. On top of that, he seems to be the dean of a surprisingly united squad of American “X-Men”, playing well the role of Professor X (he’s even bald).

From the daily press conferences to the media photos on the street, the Americans always seem to be together – O’Malley, DiNardo, often Dolan, occasionally Wuerl. Part of this may be that they all stay at the North American College, but the media strategy indicates there’s more to it. With O’Malley, Dolan, and DiNardo a his faces, George himself seems to be working the backroom. He’s obviously talks openly about strategy, and someone (probably NOT George himself) has been successful in convincing the Italian press that both Dolan and O’Malley could be papable.

Perhaps most telling, one of the few media photographs I’ve seen of George shows him arriving at St. Peter’s flanked not by his fellow Americans, but by Cardianal Toppo of India and Cardinal Onaiyekan of Nigeria. I don’t want to read too much into one photo - especially without context – but it does seem a bit of an unnatural group under normal circumstances. However, in this anti-curial climate, Asia and Africa are prefect partners for an American stand against a curia-backed Latin American candidate (like Odilo Scherer).

It’s impossible to know who does or doesn’t have the numbers once conclave starts. What does seem to be apparent is that Francis George is counting noses and twisting arms. I would expect him to be the key driver of American strategy inside the Sistine Chapel – and if he plays his cards right, he could find himself in the driver’s seat of the entire anti-curia revolt. Only time will tell.

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