The symbolism of Vatican smoke

In that vast cosmos of symbols that is the Roman Catholic Church, one of the more curious appearing at this time is the binary code used to alert the world if a new pope has been elected or not: the color of smoke from a temporary chimney above the Sistine Chapel. White for yes, black for no.

Like many symbols, it was at one time purely practical, a way of communicating what was happening in the conclave of cardinals without unlocking the door and showing a human face: complete secrecy. It was Tweeting before Twitter – not 140 characters but one, and not even a character but a single byte of information, zero or 1, off or on, black or white.

But there have been glitches. In days of yore, as yore has it, burning the ballots alone yielded pure white smoke; burning them with wet straw yielded pure black. I think the quality of the paper used for the ballots must have changed, because at least since the conclave of 1958 the color of the smoke has often been gray. To remedy this, according to reports, the Vatican has used everything from white and black smoke-bombs supplied by the police to a less-risky mixture of unidentified “chemicals.” In addition, there are now two stoves connected to the chimney, one for the ballots and the other for the chemicals. Thus what was once a very simple operation has become a very complex (and costly) one, and still nobody’s guaranteeing unequivocal results.

In an age when the previous pope learned to Twitter, when Vatican authorities are so paranoid of leaks from the conclave that they’re continuously sweeping the Sistine Chapel for electronic devices, when one three-character message from the conclave to the social media could relay a sic or a non to a waiting world, the Vatican’s communication technology isn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s, it’s Rube Goldberg’s.

That’s why the smoke signals are no longer just a sign but a symbol, a symbol of the reluctance of the organizational apparatus of the Catholic Church to let go of ways of acting that cloud, so to speak, its ability to effectively engage the world. This has nothing to do with the truths of the faith, revealed and immutable; it has everything to do with the credibility of the institution presenting them. No efforts to re-evangelize the “post-Christian” societies of the West will bear fruit unless the smoke clears.

The first issue of credibility is the role of the papacy itself. When Paul VI in 1963 laid aside the royal triple tiara and instead donned a bishop’s mitre as the symbol of his domain, he laid aside the role of the pope as a temporal monarch, the long and often sorry history of which had come to an end nearly a century before. The pope was to be a pastor, not a potentate. Though his two major successors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, retained the mitre, they also reinstated monarchy over the institution of the Church: government by decree, from doctrinal pronouncements to the appointment of bishops to the minutest details of the translation of liturgical texts. As retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn pointed out in a recent speech, such an imperial papacy defies the call of Vatican Council II for devolving decision-making power to worldwide bishops’ synods and regional conferences of bishops. This decentralization of power would return the papacy to what it was in the early Church: the bishop of Rome as “first among equals.” It would allow open and frank debate over proposals such as a married clergy and the ordination of women, whose proponents have been silenced, and some excommunicated, by Rome’s decree.

A second issue shrouded in smoke is the process of electing a pope by the College of Cardinals, a practice instituted in the eleventh century to inhibit the meddling of kings and princes. Now that that threat is long gone, should not the election be opened to a body more representative of world Catholicism than those 115 cardinals, nearly half of whom are Italians? One possibility would be to extend the vote to the roughly 5,000 bishops who are heads of dioceses, and allow them to evaluate possible candidates for the office instead of being placed in lockdown by the Vatican.

A third issue is the composition and activity of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, the heads of whose divisions are almost exclusively cardinals and bishops. Vatican watcher Thomas Reese characterizes the Curia as “a 17th-century court … where princes and nobles helped the king run the nation.” It is a body without checks and balances, exercising combined legislative, executive, and judicial authority at the pleasure of the pope. Reese suggests a separation of powers and due process more in line with modern models of government. The Curia, he says, “should be organized as a civil service and not part of the hierarchy of the Church.” Such an arrangement would undercut the clerical insularity that has contributed to the sex-abuse cover-ups and other scandals, and open the formation and implementation of Church policy to qualified lay Catholics much more realistic and responsive to the needs of the Church as a whole.

It may take a lot of black smoke before the next pope emerges. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait.



comments so far. Comments posted to may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.