Revolution in Papal Elections

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center
America, April 13, 1996
Copyright © 1996 by America Press
All rights reserved


John Paul II has tossed out over 800 years of tradition and will allow the next pope to be elected by an absolute majority of the college of cardinals rather than by a two-thirds majority. This is the most radical change in the process of electing popes since 1970 when Paul VI took the vote away from cardinals who had turned 80 years of age.

According to the 1179 decree of Alexander III, the election of the pope required a two-thirds majority of the college of cardinals, a law that remained in force until Pius XII made it two-thirds plus one in 1945. Pius XII added the extra vote to eliminate the cumbersome process then in place to make sure that a cardinal did not vote for himself.

In his apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, John Paul states that two-thirds of the votes of the cardinal electors present are required to elect the pope. If the number of cardinals present is not equally divisible by three, one additional vote is required. Thus John Paul, unlike earlier popes, does not appear to be worried about a cardinal voting for himself.

More importantly, if after three days of voting (with as many as two ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon), no one receives a two-thirds vote, the voting is suspended for one day of prayer and discussion. This is followed by another seven ballots and another day of prayer and discussion. If after two additional sets of seven ballots the cardinals still have not elected someone by a two-thirds vote, an absolute majority of the cardinals can vote to change the rules to allow the election of the pope by a absolute majority. (An absolute majority is more than half of the electors).

What this change means is that if an absolute majority votes for a particular candidate on the very first vote of the conclave, there is no incentive for them to compromise. All they need to do is hold tough through the requisite series of ballots until they will be permitted to change the rules and elect their candidate.

This is a radical departure from church tradition that encouraged compromise and consensus in the selection of popes. In the past, just over a third of the cardinals could stop the election of a particular candidate who they found objectionable. This forced the majority to compromise with the minority in finding a candidate who was acceptable to two-thirds of the cardinals.

The authors of the new rules appear to believe that the church, or at least the college of cardinals, is a democracy where the majority should rule. For American political scientists the change is reminiscent of a similar change in the rules governing Democratic Party conventions, which before 1936 required a two-thirds vote of the delegates to nominate a presidential candidate.

Universi Dominici Gregis does not explain why this revolutionary change was made. Perhaps it was feared that now that the cardinal electors will have decent living quarters in Domus Sanctae Marthae, as opposed to cubicles in the Apostolic Palace, there is less incentive for them to elect a pope and go home. Changing the rules reduces the likelihood of a long conclave.

Divisions within the college of cardinals have sometimes made it difficult for a candidate to obtain a two-thirds majority vote. In the thirteenth century the papacy was vacant for a year and a half before the election of Innocent IV and for three and a half years before the installation of Gregory X. In recent times, especially since the fall of the papal states, conclaves have been shorter. The last conclave to go more than four days was in 1831. It lasted 54 days.

The practical consequences of the change in the election rules is significant. If a conservative majority holds the college of cardinals, it is now much more likely that they will elect a hard-line, authoritarian conservative rather than a pastoral conservative. Likewise, if a liberal majority holds the college, it is now more likely that they will elect a hard-line liberal rather than a pragmatic progressive.

Liberal Catholics who hoped for change in the next papacy are probably going to be disappointed. The change in election rules means that liberal Catholics may find John Paul's successor even less to their liking than John Paul himself. As today they now look back fondly on the days of Paul VI, they may in the future look back fondly on the days of John Paul II.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, wrote about papal elections in America, November 19, 1994. His book, The Vatican: Organization and Politics of the Catholic Church will be published in the fall by Harvard University Press.

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