With all the excitement surrounding the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, I was reminded of a certain fictional depiction of a papal conclave: Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, specifically the 2009 film version directed by Ron Howard.
In Angels & Demons, Brown’s Robert Langdon (who is also the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code) finds himself once again embroiled in controversy regarding the Catholic Church, this time in connection with the death of the pope and a bomb threat against the conclave and Vatican City.
Although Brown has been criticized for misrepresenting the Church, when recently re-watching Angels & Demons, I actually found that he isn’t that far off in regard to certain traditions, specifically some elements of his portrayal of the conclave. That’s not to say, though, that Dan Brown is always right — the man makes his errors, too. To help you sort out fact from fiction, here’s a breakdown of some story points from the movie and how they relate to Conclave 2013.
The Camerlengo — TRUE
Angels & Demons introduces viewers early on to Ewan McGregor’s character Patrick McKenna (Carlo Ventresca in the book) who is the Camerlengo of the Church, and as such served as head of state of Vatican City during tempe sede vacante, the period between the pope’s death (or retirement) and the election of the new pope. This position does exist, and this conclave’s Camerlengo is Cardinal Tarcisio Pietro Evasio Bertone, S.D.B., the Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati. Unlike the fictional McKenna, who appears to only be a priest and not a cardinal, the real-life Camerlengo must always be a cardinal.
Destruction of the Ring of the Fisherman — TRUE
The very first scene of Angels & Demons depicts the Camerlengo destroying the pope’s ring, the Ring of the Fisherman, with a silver hammer. This is an actual practice that ensures that no documents can be forged during the interregnum period using the ring or seal as a signature of the pope. This was done with Pope Benedict XVI’s ring as well.
Election by Acclamation — FALSE (mostly)
Angels & Demons features (SPOILER ALERT!) the near-election of Camerlengo Patrick McKenna as pope by acclamation. Papal election by acclamation was valid until 1996, and the last pope to be elected by acclamation was Pope Gregory XV in 1621. Also, nowhere to be found are the rules mentioned in Angels & Demons, which stipulate that for a person to be elected by acclamation, he must be both ordained and present in the Sistine Chapel during the conclave.
Preferiti — FALSE
A major element of Brown’s novel and Howard’s film is the notion that there are four cardinals who are favored to win the papal election, who go by the title preferiti. There is no such term outside of Brown’s fictional universe, and no particular favorites that are universally recognized. There is a less strict term, papabile (literally translated “pope-able”), which refers to cardinals who are more likely than others to be elected pope. However, this title does not carry the inflated significance that the characters in Angels & Demons attribute to the preferiti, which eventually gets blown so far out of proportion that the conclave is described as stalling. So, the cardinals can only elect one of the four preferiti, and are later baffled and scrambling when it appears that they will have to choose someone who is not one of the preferiti.
Antimatter — FALSE
While it’s not a part of the conclave (at least a typical one), it’s worthwhile to discuss Dan Brown’s treatment of antimatter in Angels & Demons. CERN itself has tackled the issue, stating that the antimatter bomb threat that looms over the Vatican in the film is essentially impossible in real life. CERN has stated that such a bomb would require far more antimatter than it could produce. So, you don’t need to worry about an antimatter threat during Conclave 2013. (Whew!)
While there are many more parts of Brown’s fractured fiction that deserve some attention (his exaggerated idea of the threat that the illuminati could pose, his idea of a purported war between science and religion, the level of controversy he attributes to the “God Particle”), I hope that the insights here will help you get a grasp on reality v. fiction as cardinals choose the next pope.