The Secret Conclave of 2039
It wasn’t the dustiest room in the Vatican nor the most forbidding; it wasn’t frequented but it was near the corner of a well-trodden path. It was much too small to fit all Cardinals, or even just those presently in Rome, yet by judicious use of whispering and a distributed protocol older than the Médici it was possible for people to meet in carefully overlapping groups while giving no formal notice of a conclave.
A conclave was unconceivable: the Pope was alive and had no plans to retire.
A conclave was, however, necessary: the Pope’s psychological deterioration was harming the Church herself. A Pope on psychiatric medication would have been acceptable to the times in a way that an obviously unstable one wouldn’t, but His Holiness’ condition was resistant to chemical treatment.
The Conclave proposed, considered, and evaluated the obvious and the unthinkable, bound to secrecy and effectiveness by oaths so terrible they had had to be redacted by the most learned and ill-tempered of their peers. It did not help that a significant minority of Cardinals believed His Holiness’ burden divinely ordained, and some of them sought and, naturally, found divine signs among his least humanly comprehensible actions and statements.
No concrete proposal was put to vote before His Holiness himself announced that he would accept the grafting of a neural implant to help stabilize his condition. The last part was implicit, to be assumed to be there by whoever chose to. Every faction among the Cardinals had a different interpretation, but the secret vote not to interfere was uncommonly swift and nearly unanimous.
The Conclave did not dismiss itself. Three months later the room was once again nearly continuously filled by a carefully orchestrated stream of Cardinals in a never-ceasing quiet but heated debate.
The intervention had been a success: His Holiness’ mood and cognition were stable.
The intervention had been a failure: His mood and cognition were uncommonly so.
The intervention had been a success: The energy of his theological and administrative work had increased enormously.
The intervention had been a failure: The direction of his theological developments and the administrative reforms would have been called concerningly unorthodox if not for long doctrinal constraints.
Innovative was the consensus term across the Conclave; it was not a word the Church held in such uncritical consideration as the rest of the world. Lesser men would have called some of the Pope’s most recent statements terrifying – perhaps the Cardinals did too in the privacy of their hearts.
A sub-committee with confidential access to some of the foremost physicians and neuroengineers of the age — not all of the Catholics, and maybe more reliable because of it — confirmed that no engineering or medical test had found any sign of a mistake or damage in the implant’s hardware or His Holiness’ brain. It was therefore plausible that this was the way he was always meant to think, and either the previous conclave had been misguided in their choice — a theologically worrisome innovation on itself — or he was, indeed, the strange, troubling man meant to lead the Church during those strange, troubling times. The rumored contents of the drafts of his upcoming encyclicals on computational intelligence, genetic implants, and synthetic ecosystems was perhaps a sign.
But a sign of what? The most unsettled of the Cardinals pointed to the content of those encyclicals as a darkening or outright ending of certain long-held stances of the Church.
This was received with a rhetorical shrug by the historically aware, so another argument was put forward: could His Holiness’ neural implant had been hacked? That nothing with a digital mind was safe from tampering was axiomatic. Why not consider the possibility that the Pope’s brain was under attack? Wasn’t his refusal to even consider a software audit already suspicious?
Skeptics pointed that the device’s design, based on much-tested quantum-safe cryptography and metamaterial technologies new enough that unbelievers used the word “miracle” to talk about them, made any tampering unlikely before technology had advanced perhaps three or four years more (unless, it was unsaid but clear, by supernatural means).
(The argument that not all supernatural means and actors were to be trusted was equally silent and pointed.)
So heated were the discussions that His Holiness became aware of them; or perhaps his surveillance of the highest among his flock was even more extensive than it was rumored to be; or perhaps one or more Cardinals betrayed their oaths for deeper and newer ones. In his wisdom, the Pope did not punish the Cardinals but rather invited them to allay their concerns in the most direct way possible, by undergoing the same upgrades themselves.
At the word upgrade many Cardinals shivered, some in fear, some not. All realized that the rumors had been for once too timid. Yet a Secret Conclave was one thing, direct defiance of his orders and his upcoming doctrinal statements would have been something else. Devotion, loyalty, and in some a triumphant sense of its righteousness led most Cardinals to accept his command, with the rest of them understanding their influence would henceforward be limited at most.
In another decade they would have made a last attempt to push the Pope aside on psychiatric grounds, not for the first time breaking apart the Church to save some of it. In another century they would have just killed him and thought it, too, God’s work.
Times had changed. After the publishing of the Ex Machina encyclical they would change even more.