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!

It’s never too early to think about Christmas wishlists…

audience nov 20 2013

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square Nov. 20, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Have you attended one of the pope’s weekly general audiences in St. Peter’s Square?

If so and you’d like a memento of that day, you should know that you can order online a DVD of Vatican Television’s full coverage of the event.

Obviously anyone can purchase the DVDs and you can pick any general audience spanning from April 21, 2010 to today’s. Those dates include some historic gatherings like Pope Benedict’s last general audience Feb. 27.

The Italian-based website has partnered with the Vatican for a while now, helping people around the world order and receive print, audio and visual media produced by Vatican outlets as well as some religious articles.

In fact, with the Christmas countdown now at “35 Days to Go,” it may not be too early to look for some special gifts from the Vatican.

The site offers things like:

Some unique offerings include:

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

    Cardinals entering the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel March 12 as they begin the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

    A double CD titled “Music of the Conclave,” with the complete live recordings of the liturgical music sung by the Sistine Chapel Choir and the cardinal electors chanting before entering the conclave that eventually elected Pope Francis.

  • A four-CD box set of “the only recording ever” of Pope Benedict praying the entire rosary in Latin.
  • (Though they’re sold out…) the official and misspelled “LESUS” medal of Pope Francis’ pontificate.
  • A stuffed “Bedtime Bunny” that children can take to bed and, when they press its tummy, helps them recite a classic bedtime prayer.


Espionage at the Vatican

VATICAN CITY — Claims of eavesdropping on the Vatican are nothing new.

But it’s hard to imagine any current foreign snooping could match the spying frenzy of the Cold War when the communist “East” and democratic “West” were locked in an ideological battle.


Karol Wojtyla receiving the woolen pallium during his installation as Pope John Paul II Oct. 22, 1978. (CNS photo by Arturo Mari)

After Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, the Vatican did come under increased scrutiny as it was seen to be a decisive player in the anti-communist chess game.

Apparently double agent priests infiltrated the upper echelons of the Vatican and Czechoslovakian spies reportedly bugged the private studio of then-Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli by planting a hidden microphone inside a statue of Our Lady.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was spied on for three decades before he became pope by the Stasi — East Germany’s communist secret police.


Pope John Paul II greeting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at a Munich airport in November 1980 at the end of a papal visit to Germany. (CNS photo from KNA)

According to one agent, the cardinal prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “would have an influence on the growth of anti-communist attitudes in the Catholic Church, especially in Latin America.” Agents wrote that Pope John Paul asked Cardinal Ratzinger to organize help for “counterrevolutionary activities in Poland” after the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980.

Details of the Stasi’s activities were published in 2005 by the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag. The Stasi archives show there was one agent in the Vatican who provided “exact details” of the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II.

The newspaper noted that the secret police had kept an extensive card file on then-Cardinal Ratzinger and had described him as “the most decided opponent of communism in the Vatican.” Spies also described him as appearing “initially shy in conversation,” but that he also possessed “a winning charm.”

Soviet-bloc governments tried to get their Eastern European theology students to spy on the Vatican when they studied in Rome.


Jesuit Father Robert Graham pictured in Rome in 1992. Father Graham, who died in 1997, was considered an authority on the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II. (CNS photo/Agostino Bono)

“The poor Soviets believed secret sources more than public information, but that was an illusion,” the late-U.S. Jesuit Father Robert Graham, a historian and longtime Vatican observer, told CNS in 1993.

“They had to employ very complicated means to get the same information that was in the newspapers,” he said in this old CNS story that ran on page 12 in the Anchor, the diocesan paper of Fall River, Mass.

One longtime Vatican reporter claimed at the time that two Hungarian agents in the 1960s went directly to him instead of to his tidied and edited news reports.

He said the outrageous stories he made up for them were exceeded only by the outrageously bad vodka they gave him each Christmas.

Cardinals, free to tweet again, send limited observations

ROME — The cardinal electors who voted in the conclave were cut off from all forms of external communication for the duration of the two-day voting period. But once the conclave was over, they did not immediately fill up their Twitter account with reflections on their experiences or their wishes for the new pope.

Most likely the cardinals didn’t have too much time for that. Immediately after the Pope Francis was announced to the world in St. Peter’s Square, the cardinals joined one another for dinner, then many of them gave interviews or were part of press briefings.

Since then, they had Mass with the new pope and a meeting with him, so they have not had a lot of free time on their hands.

But some have found the chance to send a few messages to their Twitter followers after the few days of imposed silence.

napierSouth African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier sent several tweets after the election of Pope Francis beginning with the March 14 message about the pope’s choice of name, quoting him: “I shall be called Francis, in memory of St Francis of Assisi!”

The cardinal described the pope’s name choice as “words that made a grown man cry with joy and wonder! More was to follow.”

He also sent the following tweets:

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan resumed tweeting March 13, saying;

His other tweets the next day were short and sweet :

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, also resumed tweeting March 13 with this message:

His subsequent tweets revealed even more joy in the moment:

Humo Blanco de la Capilla Sixtina señala nuevo pontífice

CIUDAD DEL VATICANO (CNS) – Sorprendiendo a las multitudes a nivel mundial, nubes de humo blancas brotarón de la chimenea en el techo de la Capilla Sixtina este 13 de marzo, lo que indica un Papa ha sido elegido en la quinta votación del cónclave.

La señal de humo se activó a las 7:05 p.m. Los 115 cardenales se reunieron para elegir el 266 sucesor de San Pedro, el nuevo líder de la Iglesia Católica. Los votos anteriores, tomados a finales del 12 de marzo, y dos votos a la mañana siguiente, resultarón en nubes de humo negro.

El Vaticano estima que dentro de una hora el cardenal Jean-Louis Tauran, el diácono cardenal de alto rango, saldrá al balcón de la Basílica de San Pedro y confirmará la elección con la frase “Habemus Papam.” (Tenemos Papa ).

11 U.S. cardinals to enter conclave


Eleven U.S. cardinals will take part in the conclave beginning tomorrow to elect a new pope. (CNS graphic/Paul Haring and Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Alphabetical list of cardinal electors’ first names in Latin

Balcony where the name of the cardinal elected pope will be announced in Latin. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Balcony where the name of the cardinal elected pope will be announced in Latin. (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Here is an alphabetical list of the cardinal electors’ first names in Latin, in the accusative case, which is likely to be that used when announcing the name of the new pope.

Several cardinals are listed twice because they may be referred to by their baptismal name, given name or religious name. For instance, Indian Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, is listed twice because the “Acta Apostolicae Sedis,” (The Official Acts of the Holy See) has used both versions. U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada and Dutch Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk of Utrecht are listed twice because “Gulielmum” and “Villelmum” are both acceptable versions of their name.

— Albert Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

— Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines.
— Lluis Martinez Sistach of Barcelona, Spain.

— Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris.

— Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
— Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, Italy.
— Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica.
— Angelo Scola of Milan.

— Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

— Antonio Canizares Llovera, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
— Antonios Naguib, former Coptic Catholic patriarch, Egypt.
– Anthony Olubunmi Okogie of Lagos, Nigeria.

Antonium Mariam
— Antonio Maria Rouco Varela of Madrid.
— Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers.

— Attilio Nicora, president emeritus of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.

— Audrys Juozas Backis of Vilnius, Lithuania.

— Agostino Vallini, papal vicar for Rome.

Bachara or Becharam
— Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch.

Basilium Clementem
Baselios Cleemis (Isaac) Thottunkal, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

— Carlos Amigo Vallejo of Seville, Spain.
— Carlo Caffarra, of Bologna, Italy.
— Karl Lehmann of Mainz, Germany.

— Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw, Poland.

— Christoph Schonborn of Vienna.

— Claudio Hummes, retired prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.

— Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

— Crescenzio Sepe of Naples, Italy.

Daniel or Danielem
— Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

— Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan.

— Domenico Calcagno, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See.
— Dominik Duka of Prague, Czech Republic.

— Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.

— Edwin F. O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

— Manuel Monteiro de Castro, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

— Ennio Antonelli, retired president of Pontifical Council for the Family.

— Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

— Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
— Francis E. George of Chicago.
— Francesco Monterisi, retired secretary of the Congregation for Bishops.
— Francisco Robles Ortega of Guadalajara, Mexico.
— Franc Rode, retired prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Franciscum Xaverium
— Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa of Santiago de Chile.

— George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly, major archbishop of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
— Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
— George Pell of Sydney.
— Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, Venezuela.

— Gabriel Zubeir Wako of Khartoum, Sudan.

— Geraldo Majella Agnelo of Sao Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.

— Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels.

— Willem Jacobus Eijk of Utrecht, Netherlands.
— William Joseph Levada, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

— James M. Harvey, archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
— Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana.

— Joachim Meisner of Cologne, Germany.

— Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland.
— Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
— Juan Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru.
— Giovanni Lajolo, retired president of the commission governing Vatican City State.
— John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya.
— John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.
— Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.
— Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara, Mexico.
— John Tong Hon of Hong Kong.

Ioannem Baptistam
— Giovanni Battista Re, retired prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
— Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Ioannem Claudium
— Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal.

Ioannem Ludovicum
— Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Ioannem Franciscum
— Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Ioannem Patricium
— Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

Ioannem Petrum
— Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux, France.

— Giuseppe Bertello, president of the commission governing Vatican City State.
— Giuseppe Betori of Florence, Italy.
— Josip Bozanic of Zagreb, Croatia.
— Jose da Cruz Policarpo, Lisbon, Portugal.
— Giuseppe Versaldi, president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.

— Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

— Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

— Baselios Cleemis (Isaac) Thottunkal, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

— Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Congo.

— Ivan Dias, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

— Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.

— Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

— Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.

— Nicolas Lopez Rodriguez of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

— Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City.

— Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo.

— Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India.

— Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

— Paolo Sardi, a former official in the Vatican Secretariat of State.
— Paul Josef Cordes, retired president of Pontifical Council Cor Unum.
— Paolo Romeo of Palermo, Italy.

— Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary.
— Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

— Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France.

— Polycarp Pengo of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

— Raul Vela Chiriboga, retired archbishop of Quito, Ecuador.

— Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature.
— Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Aparecida, Brazil.

— Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany.

— Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin.

— Raffaele Farina, retired head of the Vatican Secret Archives and the Vatican Library.

— Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.

— Roger Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles.

— Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota, Colombia.

— Santos Abril Castello, archpriest of Basilica of St. Mary Major.

— Severino Poletto of Turin, Italy.

— Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland.
— Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

— Telesphore Toppo, of Ranchi, India.

— Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state.

— Theodore-Adrien Sarr of Dakar, Senegal.

— Thomas C. Collins of Toronto.

— Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

— Walter Kasper, retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

— Velasio De Paolis, papal delegate overseeing reform of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi.

— Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa.

— Willem Jacobus Eijk of Utrecht, Netherlands.
— William Joseph Levada, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

— Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

— Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.


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