So you might have heard about Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina's election as Pope Francis. It was news not only for the fact that we had a new pope, but also for the fact that, for all the speculation on who might be elected, that may have been the first time the name Jorge Bergoglio found its way onto any screen of yours. Bergoglio came as a shock not only for not being an expected or, largely, even acknowledged name (though USA Today, for one, got lucky, albeit with the most bare-bones of a bio), but also for being the first South American pope, the first Jesuit pope, having chosen a new regnal name (Francis, the first new, non-amalgamated name since Pope Lando in 913), being completely unconnected to any of the sex scandals surrounding the church...
...and as people started reading up on his bio, being allegedly connected to the death squads that plagued Argentina in the 1970's. There is a debate sure to rage as time goes on about whether Bergoglio (I don't know why, but I just prefer using the pre-papal name) played any part in it, but of course, whether he did or not, it's too late to do anything about it, because he's just been elected the new pope.
We all played into ignoring Bergoglio in the runup to the conclave. We all focused on the front-runners. I did too. But in hindsight, can't we do better than this? After all, in four of the last seven conclaves spanning the last 75 years, people have come away stunned at the selection and unprepared for the name that they're given. We're really not good at reading the College of Cardinals and anticipating who they're going to pick. They don't tell people much, and as such we're left to wildly speculate and the media left to put forward names that in reality may have no chance at all. (I'm confident in saying that Timothy Dolan, for instance, was only put forward because he's the Archbishop of New York, and much of the US media is based in New York and was rooting for their hometown cardinal regardless of his bio.) Given that the ballots are secret, it didn't really occur to anyone to consider who the runner-ups were last time out, something that would have flagged Bergoglio as he was reportedly the 2nd-place finisher in the 2005 conclave that elected the now-former Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger.
Can't we do better?
At the time of this conclave, there were 207 members of the College of Cardinals; Bergoglio's election takes him out of the College and drops it to 206; this is either an all-time high or pretty close to it. Since the 1300's, every pope has been elected from within the College, so we're pretty safe in assuming that any given pope in the future will come from within the College as well. We cover 535 members of the United States Congress and have scouting reports on every single one of them as well as anyone that launches a credible effort to take any of their jobs. Can't we do the same with the College? I'm looking around, and there is nobody out there that's specially keeping tabs on the members of the College. The closest I see is from the Holy See Press Office, and their bios are dry to the point of worthlessness. This is a hole that needs filling.
It seems like something that not only do we need for ourselves, but for the cardinals as well; many of them met for the first time at the conclave and needed to research each other before the vote. It shouldn't be all that difficult for someone that knows what they're doing, or a couple someones, to construct a website, construct a bio on each member of the College no matter how ridiculous their purported chances at future election, and then to keep tabs on them. This way, the next time the papacy comes up for grabs, we'll all be able to go there, easily run down all the names, and figure out not who's most likely to be named (which, again, we're bad at doing), but who the College might select if they want the Roman Catholic Church to go in any of a number of different directions- the cardinals who would most focus on the poor, on women, on gays, the ones least tolerant towards same, all their views, all their major skeletons in the closet. Each of the cardinals has a bio somewhere- they all have Wikipedia pages, after all- but Wikipedia is not a news organization and they are not a handicapper. And the pages of some of the cardinals are also bare-bones- say, Simon Pimenta of India, or Albert Vanhoye of France, or one of the newest cardinals, James Michael Harvey of the United States. Whatever your feelings on religion, these are still influential people and the papacy a position with spiritual influence on far more people than even the President. Knowing who they are, what they're up to, and who is more fit to lead is of critical importance.
This is 2013. We can do better than a blind guess.