Cardinal George Pell was actively pushing for a Hungarian cardinal to become the next Pope, according to the conservative writer and polemicist Rod Dreher.
Mr Dreher, who is from the US but now lives in Hungary, said that Cardinal Pell was “so in favour” of the candidacy of the Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Cardinal Peter Erdo, to succeed Pope Francis.
At the time of his death, Cardinal Pell had been expecting a conclave imminently and was preparing to play the role of kingmaker in any papal election. He was hoping to crown a candidate who would take things in a very different direction to that pursued by Pope Francis.
The Australian prelate wielded enormous influence across the church in the English-speaking world and had a considerable network of contacts, especially among bishops in the US and friends in Rome. After his death, he had written a secret memo describing the Francis papacy as a “catastrophe”.
Cardinal Erdo’s candidacy is attractive to conservatives as he holds theological and political positions at odds with the tone and thrust of the Francis papacy, while maintaining a relatively low-key media profile.
During the synods on the family in 2014 and 2015, Cardinal Erdo held the position of relator general, a crucial role that included outlining the synod discussions and summarising interventions.
In 2015 he gave a legalistic introductory speech at the synod, which suggested divorced and remarried Catholics could only receive communion if they renounced sexual relations with their new spouse. He argued that integrating divorced and remarried Catholics into the Church is “different from admitting them to the Eucharist”.
The speech reportedly surprised synod participants who had been expecting a more open discussion on the topic.
Although the Hungarian government has taken an anti-migrant stance, Cardinal Erdo has not spoken out strongly on the refugee crisis, which Francis has made one of the central features of his pontificate.
“It is obvious that everyone has the sacred right to try to survive in situations of famine, civil war and threats to life,” he said during a book-length interview, Guarding the Flame: The Challenges Facing the Church in the Twenty-First Century.
“You cannot force the Europeans to allow entrance – even illegally and without any control – to the entire world into their countries, because doing so would break down public order, something that is very attractive to those living in chaos.”
The cardinal is an expert in Canon Law and has served as president of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conferences and president of the Council of European Bishops Conferences.
Cardinal Pell reportedly told Mr Dreher that Cardinal Erdo is “a very fine canon lawyer” and that Rome during the Francis pontificate had become “lawless.”
In 1996 rules on the conclave published by John Paul II forbid “anyone, even if he is a cardinal, during the Pope's lifetime and without having consulted him, to make plans concerning the election of his successor, or to promise votes, or to make decisions in this regard in private gatherings”.
Nevertheless, groups in the United States have started preparing for the next conclave, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York sending copies of the book The Next Pope to fellow cardinals.
Francis, who is 86, has shown no signs of planning to step down, although he was recently admitted to hospital with bronchitis and had colon surgery in July 2021.