How (Not) to Get a Pope Elected, as Imagined in 'The Atlantic' in 2003

A work of fiction from the Atlantic archive provides some tongue-in-cheek insights into the selection of the Catholic Church's highest officer.

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White smoke billows from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel, indicating that a new pope has been elected, on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (AP / Andrew Medichini)

On the occasion of the papal conclave's selection of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, the National Journal posted a thoughtful piece this morning about the public-relations strategies that could come into consideration during the election of a new pope. According to authors Brian Resnick and Elahe Izade, the PR campaign for a pope may not be all that different from a PR campaign for a U.S. President or other political leader.

"The pope is a religious leader, a diplomat, and the chief executive of a massive, worldwide operation. And when a new pope is named, the new leader of the Catholic Church will confront an organization dealing with more than its fair share of scandal, mismanagement, and outreach problems," they write. So, by that logic, "it sounds like the pope could use a political consultant."

Can you imagine?!

... If not, don't worry. Christopher Buckley did that once, and he wrote about it for The Atlantic in 2003.

Buckley's short story "We Have a Pope!" paints a scathingly satirical picture of what the PR campaign for the election of a pope might look like. Rick Renard, a jaded Washington public-relations strategist and part-time grad-school instructor in strategic planning, is approached by a pious billionaire to head up the campaign to get the first American pope elected.

Back in his study and badly in need of a drink, I said thoughtfully, "Mr. Baroom, this isn't going to be easy." I tell my graduate students this is a tactful way of saying I'm going to want a lot of money.

He took a fountain pen and scribbled on a piece of paper and slid it across the table. It was an impressive number, with a beautiful string of zeros, like a strand of pearls. It was a number that you could retire on. I found myself thinking, You know, maybe it is time that we had a Pope.

"This would be the fee for a successful outcome?" I asked.

He took back the piece of paper and drew a line through a few of the pearls. "Your retainer. Make it happen and I'll add those zeros back."

According to the National Journal, the pontiff should be prepared to address the biggest problems within the church, including (and perhaps most notably) its sex-abuse scandals:

Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee says the pope needs to address the church's main problems—the sex-abuse scandals and the perception that it's behind-the-times—"immediately and convincingly" to shore up confidence. "It's not that different from politics here--you've got connect with people, convince them that you 'get them' and that you're willing and able to fix institutional problems," he says.

Democratic strategist Maura Dougherty suggested to NJ that the church really should think about getting some help from a PR firm to, as the authors put it, "promote positive stories of the good work it does around the world." And Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist, added that the new pope (and his PR team) could benefit from taking more assertive control of the media's narrative; that the Catholic Church should start to "play a little hardball."

Rick Renard's wealthy client seems prepared to play a little hardball of his own to get his American pontiff—albeit of a sort of half-baked variety of hardball.

He leaned back with a squeak of expensive leather. "The French want it, you know. So bad they can taste it. They're already in there maneuvering, cutting their deals. Their little cheesy deals. Can you imagine a French Pope?"

"Mr. Baroom," I said, "I don't even want to think about that. But, sir, these recent, uh, developments ... " I thought "developments" sounded better than "widespread pedophile scandals." "How do you see that, that is, in the context of electing an American Pope? Give me the benefit of your input here." I tell my graduate students that this is a way of saying to the client, Were you on drugs, or just drunk, when you came up with this idea?

... "These scandals give us an advantage going in."

"I hadn't thought of that."

Just Because He Shuffled Pedophiles Around and Paid Hush Money Doesn't Mean He Wouldn't Make a Fabulous Pope. It wasn't sticking to my bumper.

"It's the last thing anyone would expect. You know the saying: 'He who enters a conclave papabile leaves a cardinal.'"

That old chestnut. Of course. I gave a sort of low chuckle by way of pretending that I knew exactly what he was talking about. Later I learned that papabile is not a kind of pasta but means "Pope-able." That is, electable. Whatever.

Dougherty told the National Journal that the Catholic Church often gets denied due credit for its good works because they've been overshadowed by the sex-abuse scandals--which "was appropriate," she added. "You can't skirt around something like that. All the good PR in the world won't help you—and shouldn't help you—with that."

Straight-talking Rick Renard illustrates this point pretty bluntly:

There was a man standing outside the AAPC headquarters with a sign that said HANDS OFF THE ALTAR BOYS!

It's always a challenge when your candidates for Pope are being picketed for sex offenses with minors.

Like a Presidential candidate, Resnick and Izade write, a papal candidate must be charismatic.

Think of the crowds a pope draws when he travels, and the pageantry and gridlock that follows. He is a rock star, equipped with an iconic bullet- and bomb-proof Popemobile. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world. And there's nothing more uniting than the force of a charismatic personality. The next pope should realize his most important function is to be a pastor-in-chief, someone who can both embolden and soothe the people, said Miguel Díaz, President Obama's former ambassador to the Vatican.

In Buckley's fictional race for the papal office, Rick Renard discovers exactly such a candidate—and to Renard's dismay, he's Nigerian.

Arooba was radioactively charismatic. A regular Catholic Bishop Tutu. Shoo-in of the Fisherman. You could just see him in that white soutane on the balcony, bestowing his first papal blessing on a million swooning Catholics. Ladbrokes, the London oddsmakers, had him at even money. Verguenza was at 6:1. Dwayne Cardinal Kanu they had at 112:1. There being 112 cardinals, this was not what you would call encouraging.

And like a Presidential candidate, the NJ authors write, a pope has to make a concerted effort to reach younger people.

Resnick and Izade recall when Pope Benedict XVI took a bold step in the modern direction by joining Twitter. Buckley's fictional papacy campaign takes a different approach to making the Catholic Church appeal to young people: Backing a papal candidate from Los Angeles who's "handsome as a movie star" and likes surfing.

The American birds—cardinals, that is—may have all been good, even holy, men in their own way, but a Dream Team they were not, papabile-wise. Except maybe for this Dwayne Cardinal Kanu of L.A., the surfer. Pope John Paul II had gotten some very good ink in his day for being a skier. I think people are reassured to know that their Pope favors an athletic lifestyle, that he's not going to just sit on a throne all day talking Latin and handing down papal decrees about keeping women out of the priesthood.

... I was on my cell to an ABC News producer, securing some B-roll of Cardinal Kanu riding the half-pipe at Pismo Beach, when LaMoyne reached me on my other cell.

Well then. Here's to hoping this week's conclave process was presided over by people with purer morals than Rick Renard.

h/t Sage Stossel, David A. Graham