The conclave guessing game: lessons from a numbers geek

Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Cardinals from around the world in the Sistine Chapel March 12, 2013, as they began the conclave to elect a new pope. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — A year-ago today, as the world’s cardinals solemnly filed into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, news outlets, blogs and betting sites were abuzz with papal prognostications.

I wanted to take an informal stab at it myself using some tips from the U.S. statistician, Nate Silver, who had correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

I thought it’d be a fun experiment to apply some of the approaches he had outlined in his book, “The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t.”

Here’s what I looked at in the few days before the conclave:

  • What were the challenges facing the world and the church in 1978 and 2005?
  • What “winning” qualities did Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — the men who were elected those years — possess?

From there, I drafted a rough list of what church leaders and others were saying in 2013 about the pressing challenges.

Here are just a few examples:

Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Shut off from the outside world, cardinals from around the world cast ballots to elect a new pontiff in a conclave that began March 12, 2013. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

  • Religious freedom, oppression in parts of Asia; persecution and violence in the Middle East and Africa; infringements in the western world.
  • Secularism and globalization.
  • Latin America losing Catholics, Asia growing.
  • Church needing to be “attractive,” new evangelization and need to be “outspoken.”
  • Making Jesus the center of liturgy, lives, prayer.
  • Problem of sex abuse.
  • Catechism and solid foundations of faith.
  • Attention to young people.
  • Orthodoxy, importance of Catholic identity for universities, charities.
  • Lapsed Catholics; family; sacraments.
  • Vocations.

Then I scribbled down some of the winning qualities that people were looking for and would be needed to face the challenges:

  • A spiritual leader (strong prayer life).
  • Energy, strength to travel; but how young/old is too young/old?
  • Can clean up Curia/problems that make church look bad.
  • Makes faith attractive.
  • Smart; simple, clear communication.
  • Honest, down-to-earth.
  • See young people as important.
  • Represents the message the church wants to send the world.
  • From Asia, Latin America, Africa.
  • Charismatic; humble; multilingual.
Cardinals enter Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel in prayer March 12, 2013, as they begin the conclave. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Silver said also to list any biases that might affect the way the data is read. So I listed the common opinion that the pope “not be Italian” and the need for someone “young” or with “strength of mind and body,” as Pope Benedict himself had said.

Then I looked at several cardinals and their lives, and rated them according to how well each man possessed the needed/winning qualities to confront today’s challenges. I calculated what chances they had of winning, of losing, and of having won in the past.

I only had time to look at 14 cardinals out of the 117 electors. But one of those men was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, whom I gave an 80% chance of winning and a 60% chance of losing (mostly because of his age — he was 76, and lack of languages).

bergoglio stats

A print-out of cardinal-electors, showing my Nate Silver-inspired stat results on March 12, 2013, for Cardinal Bergoglio’s chances of being elected pope.

But those pretty good percentages put him behind what I had calculated for Pope Francis’ close friend, 70-year-old Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. I had given him a 90% chance of winning and a 10% chance of losing, noting his focus on the poor, writings on globalization, his strong voice for Latin America, language abilities, courage to “put out into the deep,” his work on sanctity of life; and importance of evoking God in a secular world.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila got the next highest marks with a 90% chance of winning, but a 20% chance of losing (too young) noting the following “winning” qualities: “Asian, rides the bus, humble, Vatican II scholar, has ‘star power,’ intellect,” communicates clearly, with focus on youth.


Window of the Holy Spirit above Bernini’s sculpture, “The Throne of St. Peter,” in St. Peter’s Basilica Feb. 19, 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The good thing about Silver’s approach is you’re supposed to adjust the percentages as you collect more data and I didn’t have that much time to find out more about Cardinal Bergoglio. Had I known he was another friend of public transport, I would have boosted his Win score up to 85%!

But probably the best lesson Silver offers is to never forget the limitations posed by human nature, our biases and our limited access to all the information out there.

We want to try to predict the future and be sure about what’s going to happen. But, he said we should be more humble about our ability to perceive and predict the world. And then when you add the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit at work, well, then all bets are off!

Ambassador’s ceremony draws an eclectic crowd

A Supreme Court justice, an actor and a Catholic university president walk into the State Department…..

… and formalize the swearing in of their mutual friend, constitutional lawyer Douglas Kmiec, as ambassador to Malta.

What sounds like the opening to a stand-up routine was instead the scene in the Treaty Room at the State Department Sept. 2, a case of someone with a broad, diverse base of friends and colleagues if ever there was one.

Justice Samuel Alito, who worked with Kmiec at the Justice Department in the 1980s and is one of the six Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court; actor Martin Sheen, who is a fellow parishioner at Kmiec’s Catholic parish in California, and Vincentian Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, where Kmiec was dean of the law school from 2001 to 2003, each had a role in the brief ceremony.

Kmiec, who is on hiatus as a columnist for Catholic News Service, holds an endowed chair in constitutional law at Pepperdine University School of Law, and previously was director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center on Law & Government, and the founder of its Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.  As a lifelong Republican who helped write the Reagan administration’s legal arguments to the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade,  Kmiec stunned some of his friends and former allies with his support for Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign.

An article Kmiec wrote headlined “Reaganites for Obama” caught the eye of  Joshua DuBois, then Obama’s campaign director of religious outreach and now  director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Are you for real?” Kmiec recalled being asked by DuBois in their first conversation. “Many people have asked that since then.”

Not long after Kmiec’s support for Obama became public, he was denied Communion on that basis at a Mass before he addressed a Catholic business group in California.  The priest, who was never identified, later apologized.

Kmiec went on to serve as a member of the campaign’s Catholic advisory group and wrote a book “Can a Catholic Support Him: Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama.” From his ambassadorial post, he will continue to serve the administration informally as an adviser on interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

DuBois noted that role would be especially appropriate from Malta, a historical crossroads of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Father O’Connell offered an invocation, Sheen led the Pledge of Allegiance and Alito administered the oath of office.

Afterward, Kmiec, Alito and Sheen each warmly greeted guests, many of whom asked to pose for photos with the ambassador, the  justice and the actor, who played President Jed Bartlett for seven seasons of the White House-based drama, “The West Wing.”

Despite political activism on a range of issues and his history as a “president” who Kmiec noted “didn’t raise anyone’s taxes and expanded everyone’s budgets,” Sheen said it was his first visit to the State Department.

Not a baptism by fire

Father Joseph Illo, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Modesto, Calif., has been happy to talk to reporters in recent weeks about a member of his parish community, Heidi Sierras, one of a handful of people to be baptized by the pope during the April 11 Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica.

His parishioners are well accustomed to media folks hanging out after Mass, not just for this story, but also when the pastor made headlines of his own in November.  The story back then was over a letter he sent to parishioners urging them to “go to confession before receiving Communion” if they had voted for Barack Obama for president.

Soon after the letter gained media attention, his bishop issued a statement to clarify the issue. Stockton Bishop Stephen E. Blaire said the sacrament of reconciliation was not obligatory for Catholics who voted for Obama. He also stipulated that if a Catholic voted for a candidate “with a pro-abortion record with the motivation of supporting that abortion stance, then that is a grave moral matter.”

Now, as reporters are catching on to the story of Heidi’s upcoming papal baptism, Father Illo said his parishioners are glad to have some “noncontroversial”  parish news in the media spotlight.

And the priest told Catholic News Service he was more than happy to have the opportunity to talk about something dear to his heart:  “promoting conversion.”

The ever-changing religious landscape in Washington

The withdrawal yesterday of former Sen. Tom Daschle as President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services reminded me that the number of Catholic politicians in the new administration and in Congress continues to ebb and flow. Daschle and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew his nomination as commerce secretary last month, would have been two of the Catholic members of Obama’s Cabinet. Others include former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Agriculture; former Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, Interior; former Rep. Hilda Solis of California, Labor; and former Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, Transportation.


Some of the Cabinet appointments also affect the number of Catholics in Congress, which we reported on in December. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, named to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is Catholic. Appointed to fill Salazar’s seat was Sen. Michael Bennet, who is Jewish. That keeps the numbers steady in the Senate, with 17 Catholic Democrats and nine Catholic Republicans.

But the changes aren’t over yet. The House seats of Gillibrand and Solis will be filled later this year in special elections. Until then the number of Catholics in the House stands at 96 Democrats and 38 Republicans.

CNS columnists urge attention to abortion issue

Few people — except editors at our client publications — know that Catholic News Service has a fairly robust columns package. You may even have read some of our columnists in your local Catholic newspaper and not known where they came from.

Theresa Bock prepares to ship boxes of pro-life literature and postcards at the office of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment in Washington Jan. 26. Staff in the office were shipping boxes of literature and postcards to dioceses and others as part of a national campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Theresa Bock prepares to ship boxes of pro-life literature and postcards at the office of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment in Washington Jan. 26. Staff in the office were shipping boxes of literature and postcards to dioceses and others as part of a national campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act. (CNS/Paul Haring)

With the change in administrations here in Washington, several of the columnists have been writing about the need for Catholics to remind President Obama that they don’t agree with his position on abortion.

For instance, one columnist, Tony Magliano, who writes on social justice issues, reported on this year’s March for Life in Washington but also recalled how Obama noted the anniversary:

On Jan. 22, President Barack Obama issued a very disheartening pro-abortion statement which read in part that government “should not intrude on our most private family matters.”

However, government does intervene in private family matters when it detects child abuse. Yet, it illogically and immorally refuses to protect unborn children against the most brutal form of child abuse: abortion.

Adding insult to injury, on Jan. 23 Obama reversed the ban on federal funds to organizations that promote abortion in developing countries. Now millions of tax dollars will be available to groups like the International Planned Parenthood Federation to help them perform their deadly deeds.

But worst of all, Obama has made it clear that he hopes to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. If it becomes law, FOCA would overturn virtually every federal and state limitation on abortion.

He went on to say that participating in the U.S. bishops’  current postcard campaign to oppose FOCA would be a good place for Catholics to start.

Another of our columnists, Stephen Kent, also devotes his column this week to abortion and the new administration:

It is more important than ever that the case for the culture of life be based on the firm belief in the dignity of the human person.

Politicians can count. Postelection polls said 54 percent of the Catholic electorate voted for Obama.

“Many Catholics voted for Obama despite his position on abortion, and they have an obligation to say ‘this is not why I voted for you,’ said Richard Doerflinger of the bishops’ pro-life office. One way to tell him is through a postcard.

Kent too points to the postcard campaign as a way to remind politicians that the first priority of Catholic teaching is the dignity of the human person.

Magliano also wrote a column for early December saying that many of the president-elect’s positions “reflect Catholic social doctrine and deserve our support.” But he also called Obama’s abortion position “very troubling” and urged readers to let him know their opposition to the Freedom of Choice Act. He concluded:

Now is the best time to help President-elect Obama understand the moral concerns of America’s Catholic community!

Biden becomes first Catholic veep in U.S. history

Joseph R. Biden, with his wife, Jill, holding the Bible, takes the oath of office as he is sworn in as vice president of the United States. (CNS/Reuters)

Joseph R. Biden, with his wife, Jill, holding the Bible, takes the oath of office as vice president of the United States. (CNS/Reuters)

When the former Delaware senator, Joseph R. Biden, took the oath of office of the vice president of the United States at 11:55 this morning, he became the first Catholic to hold that office in the nation’s history. John F. Kennedy holds the distinction of being the first  — and only — Catholic president in history, but until today no other Catholic man or woman has achieved winning the second-highest office in the land.

A handful of others have tried.

The first Catholic to run for vice president was Edmund S. Muskie, former governor and sitting senator from Maine. He joined Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey’s campaign to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 election. Humphrey had been Johnson’s vice president and the campaign suffered from Johnson’s failed Vietnam War policies and the turmoil of the Great Society. The Democrats lost the election to Richard M. Nixon of California and Spiro T. Agnew, Maryland’s governor.

The election marked Nixon’s triumphant return to politics. His career had taken a bad tumble after his loss in 1960 to Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected president. Muskie went on to serve as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state.

The second Catholic to run on a major party ticket was Thomas F. Eagleton, who ran on the 1972 Democratic ticket headed by South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern. Eagleton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, only ran for 18 days. He was forced off the ticket after revelations about his past hospitalizations for mental health problems surfaced. He was succeeded as the party’s vice presidential nominee by another Catholic, Robert Sargent Shriver of Maryland. A hugely popular political activist, Shriver was first head of the Peace Corps and an ambassador to France. McGovern and Shriver lost in one of the nation’s greatest landslide elections to Nixon and Agnew, who were seeking second terms. Interestingly, Shiver was the last presidential or vice presidential nominee not to have served as a governor or member of Congress prior to nomination.

The fourth Catholic to make it on a national ticket was Geraldine Ferraro, a representative from New York. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale achieved the Democratic nomination and asked Ferraro to be his running mate. She was the first woman and the first Italian American to run on a major party national ticket. Mondale and Ferraro were defeated by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who were seeking re-election to a second term.

No other Catholic would nab a place on the national ticket until Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004.

What religious denomination has prevailed in the 44 runs for the vice presidency? Presbyterians top the list, with Episcopalians a close second.

Update: Peter Chila (below) is correct. New York Congressman William Miller ran for vice president on the 1964 ticket headed by Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. They were trounced by Johnson and Humphrey.

Interestingly, Miller hailed from the same state that gave America its first Catholic to run at the head of a national ticket. New York Gov. Al Smith was the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. He overwhelmingly carried the Catholic vote, but it wasn’t enough to defeat his opponent, Herbert Hoover, who won by a landslide.

Miller had the distinction of representing two New York districts in Congress, and he later went on to become chairman of the Republican Party. New York, of course, went on to contribute another Catholic candidate: Geraldine Ferraro.

Thank you, Mr. Chila.

Obama team reaching out to religious groups

U.S. News & World Report has an article about efforts by the transition team for President-elect Barack Obama to reach out to leaders of religious denominations. Participants in some of these meetings said they’d already attended multiple sessions with Obama’s team, and that this represented a marked difference from the limited contacts they have had in the last eight years with the current administration.

The story doesn’t specifically refer to the Obama team’s contacts with Catholic groups.  But several of Obama’s staff members met with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees on domestic and international policy during their December joint meeting in Washington.

Bishops’ committee members met via teleconference with Denis McDonough, an Obama foreign policy adviser and member of the transition’s national security working group, and with Melody Barnes, the president-elect’s designate to head his Domestic Policy Council. Others who worked on Obama’s campaign and are involved in religious outreach attended various sessions with the committees.

The National Catholic Reporter had a story in December about a meeting between transition team staffers and representatives of 15 Catholic organizations, including religious orders; Network, the social justice lobbying group; Pax Christi USA, and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.