Cardinals and Conclaves

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center
America, November 19, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by America Press
All rights reserved

For the sixth and perhaps last time in his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has appointed 30 new cardinals, 24 of whom are under 80 years of age and eligible to vote in a papal conclave. Of the 120 under 80 years of age, the pope has named 83 percent. The rest were appointed by Paul VI, with none remaining from those created by John XXIII. John Paul has thus set the stage for the election of his successor who will govern the church in the next century.

John Paul has had 16 years to remake the college of cardinals, and the trend of his changes is now clear. In general he has continued the internationalization of the college begun under Paul VI. John XXIII, despite his reputation as a reformer, made the college more Italian and more curial than it was at the death of Pius XII. Paul VI increased the number of residential cardinals and the number of Asian and African cardinals. He decreased the percentage of cardinals from the curia, from Italy, and from the rest of Western Europe.

John Paul has continued to significantly reduce the percentage of cardinals from Italy, and has slightly reduced the percentage from the rest of Western Europe and the curia. He has increased the percentage of cardinals from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The most striking impact of all these changes has been on the Italian bloc in the college of cardinals. The Italian church still has more cardinal electors (20) than any other national group, but its strength in the college has been significantly reduced. The Italian bloc has fallen from 35 percent of the college at the death of John XXIII to 24 percent at the death of Paul VI to 17 percent today, half what it was under John XXIII. Only four Italians were made cardinal this year and all of them are from the curia.

Fewer Italian cardinals reduces (but does not eliminate) the odds in favor of an Italian successor to John Paul for two reasons. First, the number of potential Italian candidates is smaller; second, the number of Italian cardinals backing a specific Italian candidate will be smaller. In the last conclave, John Paul II was elected because the Italian cardinals were split between Cardinal Giovanni Benelli and Cardinal Giuseppe Siri. The only viable Italian compromise was Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, the 76-year old archbishop of Milan, who said he would refuse if elected.

Besides Italy, the other areas that suffered from the reforms of Paul VI were the rest of Western Europe and the Roman curia, and their numbers have been slightly reduced under John Paul. The percent of cardinals from the curia declined from 37 percent at the death of John XXIII to 28 percent at the death of Paul VI to 27 percent today. The percent from Western Europe (not counting Italy) went from 29 percent at the death of John XXIII to 21 percent at the death of Paul VI to 19 percent today. (For consistency over time, Berlin is considered part of Eastern Europe).

Major beneficiaries of the internationalization of the college of cardinals has been the churches of Africa and Asia. Asia has gone from 5 percent at the death of John XXIII to 7.5 percent at the death of Paul VI to 11 percent today. Likewise Africa has gone from 1 percent to 10 percent to 12.5 percent today. The percentage of Latin American cardinals has creeped up very gradually from 15 percent to 17 percent to 18 percent today. These changes increase the chances of a pope being elected from a third world church.

A final beneficiary of the appointments under John Paul has been Eastern Europe which now has 11 percent of the college of cardinals, twice the percentage it had at the death of Paul VI.

Italy and the rest of Western Europe have been the losers under these reforms, while Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe have been the gainers. The United States, which with 10 electors has the second highest number after Italy, went from 6 percent of the college at the death of John XXIII to 8 percent at the death of Paul VI and today.

The appointment of these new cardinals naturally makes one think about the next conclave. In addition, accidental falls, broken bones, and the surgical removal of a tumor the size of an orange from his colon two years ago have led to much press speculation about the health of Pope John Paul II. Since it has been the custom of the Vatican never to admit that a pope is seriously ill until he is dead, many reporters do not believe the Vatican press office when it says that the pope is in good health except that his hip is healing slowly. Although I have no reason not to believe the Vatican spokesperson, the media attention given to the health of the pope and future papal elections provides an opportunity to examine the procedures for dealing with the sickness, death (or resignation), interregnum, and election of a pope.


If the pope becomes sick, he can delegate authority to the cardinal secretary of state or to any other person. In the long history of the papacy, popes have formally or informally delegated authority to Vatican officials, cardinal nephews, and even their mistresses and children. But today the logical person to run the church while the pope is sick would be Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, who is more like a prime minister than a U.S. secretary of state.

Problems would arise if a seriously ill pope refused to delegate or if he went into a coma without having clearly delegated responsibility. Under such circumstances Vatican officials could continue to operate under their normal authority but any decision requiring the pope's approval (the appointment of bishops, the approval of major documents, etc.) would simply have to wait. If this went on for more than a year, the church would be in serious trouble.

In earlier centuries this was less of a problem because role of the papacy was more limited and because doctors were more likely to kill a person with their care than keep him alive. The ability of modern medicine to keep the body alive while the mind is deteriorating will eventually present the church with a constitutional crisis. And despite church teaching that extraordinary means need not be used to keep alive a dying patient, who will have the courage to unplug the life support systems of a pope? More importantly, who will have the credibility within the church to do this without causing a ecclesial crisis. Clearly the pope should write a living will to indicate his desires and who has the authority to make such a decision if he is unconscious. The best choice would be a family member or old friend whose love and loyalty to the pope would be unquestioned but who would at the same time have the ability to make a tough decision.

If the pope were psychologically impaired and refused to resign, the church would be faced with a canonical nightmare. Likewise a pope with Alzheimer's who refused to step down is not something anyone wants to contemplate. There are currently no canonically acceptable procedures for removing a crazy pope. In the good old days his staff might lock him in his rooms and run the church until he died. In the bad old days someone would poison him. Either strategy would be difficult to carry out in the full blaze of today's media attention.

How many crazy popes the church has suffered through in the past is uncertain. Some who today might be classified as sociopaths governed through terror and violence. Others became senile or paranoid but continued to function. How crazy does a pope have to be to be incompetent to govern? Who makes that decision? Any process for removing a pope for psychological reasons would be open to corruption, abuse, bad judgment, and misinterpretation. For example, if the decision were left to the college of cardinals, some members would be accused of being motivated by ambition rather than the good of the church. This could be more destructive of church unity than a demented pope. For example, attempts to deal with Pope Urban VI (1378-89), who became psychologically unhinged after his election, led to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417).

Ecumenical councils have attempted to remove popes, but their right to do so has never been acknowledged by the papacy. The only acceptable way for a pope to be removed from office is by death or resignation. Some medieval theologians and canonists argued that a heretical pope would be spiritually dead and therefore removed, but how this would be done is uncertain. Who can judge the pope? How could this be done without causing a schism? Many of Archbishop Lefebvre's followers felt that the pope was heretical and that Rome, not they, was in schism.

The number popes who may have resigned has been estimated as high as ten, but the historical evidence is not clear. Pope Celestine V's resignation in 1294 is the most famous because Dante placed him in hell for it. Most popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable. As Paul VI said, paternity cannot be resigned. In addition, Paul feared setting a precedent that would encourage factions in the church to pressure future popes to resign for reasons other than health. Nevertheless, the code of cannon law in 1917 provided for the resignation of a pope as do the regulations established by Paul VI in 1975. However, a resignation induced through fear or fraud would be invalid.


The rules governing a conclave and the governance of the church during the interregnum were updated by Paul VI in the constitution "Romano Pontifici Eligendo" (October 1, 1975). When the pope dies, the prefect of the papal household (Bishop Dino Monduzzi) informs the camerlengo or chamberlain who must verify his death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, the cleric prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the secretary of the Apostolic Camera who draws up a death certificate. The camerlengo (Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) tells the vicar of Rome (Cardinal Camillo Ruini) of the pope's death and the vicar then informs the people of Rome. Meanwhile the prefect of the papal household tells the dean (Cardinal Bernardin Gantin) of the college of cardinals who informs the rest of the college, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, and the heads of nations. Although this is the formal procedure, in fact most people will first hear of the death of the pope through Vatican Radio.

The camerlengo locks and seals the private apartment of the pope. In the past looting of papal apartments by his staff, the cardinals, or the Roman populace was a common custom. Today popes are more concerned that their private papers not get into the wrong hands. If the pope writes a will, the executor he appoints will take care of his private property and his private papers. This executor is answerable only to the next pope. The pope's Fisherman's ring and his seal are broken to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries.

With the death or resignation of a pope, the see of Rome becomes vacant and the government of the church is put into the hands of the college of cardinals according to rules set forth by Paul VI in his constitution "Romano Pontifici Eligendo" (October 1, 1975). At the first meeting of the cardinals after the death of the pope, the first half of this document dealing with the interregnum is read and the cardinals swear to follow it and observe secrecy. If an ecumenical council or synod of bishops is in session at the time of the pope's death, they are adjourned until called back into session by the new pope.

All the cardinals in charge of departments in the Roman curia, including the secretary of state, loose their jobs when the pope dies. The only exceptions are the camerlengo, the major penitentiary (Cardinal William W. Baum), and the vicar of the diocese of Rome. The vicar for Rome provides for the pastoral needs of the diocese of Rome and continues to have all of the powers he had under the pope. The major penitentiary deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See, and he is allowed to continue because door to forgiveness should never be closed.

The camerlengo is the most important official during the interregnum. While the pope is alive, he has the authority to act for the pope in certain areas when the pope is away from Rome. With John Paul traveling as much as he does, this could have been an important job, but modern communications technology has allowed the pope to be in instant contact with the Roman curia at all times. As a result, major decisions are referred to the pope or wait for his return. On the other hand, the camerlengo can make routine decisions especially in an emergency.

For example, a priest who had left his order and gotten married asked to be laicized so his marriage could be sacramentalized in the church. The Vatican has a procedure for dealing with such requests through the Congregation for Sacraments, but it can take a minimum of five to six months to complete once the paper work arrives in Rome. His request was rushed through with extraordinary speed, even though the paper work was not well prepared, because the man was on his death bed. Every laicization must be signed by the pope, but when the process was completed the pope was in Africa. The prefect of the Congregation for Sacraments called the secretary of state who was traveling with the pope to get the pope's approval. But in this case the prefect was told to simply have the camerlengo sign the papers. The local authorities were then notified by phone and the man was reconciled with the church before he died.

On the death of the pope, the camerlengo takes charge of and administers the property and money of the Holy See with the help of three cardinal assistants who are chosen by lot from among those cardinals under 80. During the interregnum he reports to the college of cardinals and gets their advice. He arranges for the pope's funeral in accord with instructions left him by the pope. He also sees to the preparation of the conclave.

Although the government of the church is in the hands of the college of cardinals until a new pope is elected, the powers of the college are limited. It cannot change the rules governing papal elections, appoint cardinals, or make any decisions binding on the next pope. The cardinals meet daily in a general congregation presided over by the dean of the college until the conclave begins. All the cardinals attend the general congregation although attendance by those over 80 is optional.

Three cardinal assistants under 80 are chosen by lot, one from each order, to form a particular congregation headed by the camerlengo to deal with matters of less importance. Three days into a conclave, these cardinal assistants are replaced and every three days new ones are elected. The cardinals also elect two commissions of three cardinals each. One designates who besides the cardinals can enter the conclave to perform essential services. The other commission is in charge of the preparation and enclosing of the conclave.

Unless circumstances prevent it, the conclave takes place in the Vatican palace where the cardinals can gather and vote in the Sistine Chapel. Special cubicles are built in the papal palace to house the cardinals during the conclave. With the expansion of the college to 120 cardinals, this has been a tight fit in uncomfortable quarters with hard beds and limited facilities for washing. A residence for priests is currently under construction inside the Vatican. The residence is designed with access to the papal palace so that it could be used by the cardinals during a conclave. But numerous papal elections have taken place outside of Rome where the cardinals would be safe from civil disturbances or wars. The most recent was in 1800 when, after Pope Pius VI died as a prisoner of Napoleon, the cardinals met in Venice under Austrian protection and elected Pius VII.

The date and time for beginning the conclave is set by the college of cardinals. According to Paul VI's constitution, the conclave cannot begin until at least 15 days after the death of the pope in order to give cardinals time to get to Rome. As late as 1922 cardinals from North and South America missed the conclave because of the time it took to get to Rome by boat. Today, most of the cardinals would have already gathered in Rome for the funeral of the deceased pope. The conclave must begin within 20 days although cardinals arriving late may enter and take part in the election.

The first conclave in 1978 began as late as possible while the second conclave began as early as possible. In both cases the curial cardinals were accused of either delaying or rushing the election in order to help their candidate. The delay for the first conclave was at least partly due to the lack of workers to prepare the conclave quarters during the traditional August vacation period when Paul VI died. The speed of the second was probably due to a desire to help the church get over the shock of John Paul I's death as soon as possible. In any case, the principal curial candidate, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, was not elected.

Before entering the conclave the cardinals are already discussing among themselves and their advisors the possible candidates. For example, prior to the first 1978 conclave, meetings and discussions had limited the viable candidates to Cardinal Siri and Cardinal Albino Luciani, who became John Paul I. The conclave regulations make it clear that a cardinal is not bound by any promises he makes prior to entering the conclave. Even if the promises are made under oath, he is still free to vote for whom he wants. Although the rules forbid the discussion of candidates before the death of a pope, private discussions among the cardinals do occur.

Papal Elections

Today the pope is elected by the college of cardinals, but this was not always the case. The election of the pope was not limited to the college of cardinals until the 11th century. The first pope, St. Peter, was chosen by Jesus. A few early popes, including St. Peter, may have appointed their own successor, but this method did not gain acceptance. In the early church, popes were usually chosen by the clergy and people of Rome in the same way that bishops in other dioceses were elected.

This democratic process worked well when the church was small and united. But disagreements led to factions who fought over the papacy. As early as 217 Rome was divided over whether the community should expel sinners and apostates who had denied the faith in order to avoid martyrdom. Pope Callistus I, a former slave and failed banker, was sympathetic to the view that the church should be a home for sinners as well as saints. He also made enemies by translating the liturgy from Greek into the vulgar Latin of the populace. A more conservative faction in Rome wanted to expel sinners and apostates, and they elected the first anti-pope, Hippolytus.

Sometimes the elections got violent. In 366, mobs and hired thugs from opposing factions invaded churches and killed opponents by the hundreds. For protection popes turned to the civil authorities to expel opponents and to keep the peace, but the civil authorities in Rome quickly started using their power to influence papal elections. As the popes grew wealthy and powerful, these struggles became more intense and began to involve political actors beyond the city of Rome.

Byzantine emperors from Justinian I on claimed the right to approve the election of a new pope, and newly elected popes sometimes waited months for this approval before being consecrated. Imperial interference was sometimes more direct. Empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, used her money and influence to get Vigilius elected pope in 537 after he had promised to reject the council of Chalcedon (451). Vigilius had been the nuncio to Constantinople where he got to know the imperial family. But after Vigilius was elected, he did not deliver on his promise because he found the Western bishops supportive of Chalcedon. In 545 he was arrested at mass in Rome by the Byzantine police and hauled off to Constantinople where he tried to appease the empress. In the process he alienated Western bishops, and the bishops of North Africa excommunicated him as a heretic. He died a broken man on his way back to Rome.

After the eighth century, the papal electors were limited to the Roman clergy. This followed the pattern of other dioceses where the clergy elected the bishop. Pope Leo I described the ideal by saying that no one could be a bishop unless he was elected by the clergy, accepted by his people, and consecrated by the bishops of his province. Limiting the electors to the clergy did not stop papal elections from being influenced by money and threats from civil authorities or powerful families. Theophylact and his family were able to control papal elections during much of the tenth century. After Leo V was imprisoned, tortured, and killed in 903, the family had little trouble manipulating the papacy for decades. John XI (931-935), for example, was reputed to be the son of Pope Sergius III and Theophylact's 13-year old daughter.

In an attempt to reform the electoral process, Nicholas II (1059-61) proposed a system whereby the cardinal bishops would meet to nominate a candidate and then invite in the cardinal priests to vote on him. This reduced the clergy to the same role as the laity--accepting the man chosen by the cardinals. In 1179, Alexander III modified this system by including all the cardinals in the election process from the beginning.

The cardinals are divided into three orders or categories: cardinal deacons, cardinal priests, and cardinal bishops. The cardinal priests were the pastors of major churches in Rome and the cardinal deacons were important administrators in the diocese. The cardinal bishops were the bishops of the six dioceses surrounding Rome. In the 11th century popes began appointing prelates in distant lands as cardinals. Sometimes laymen were also appointed cardinals. The maximum number of cardinals was set at 70 by Sixtus V in 1586. John XXIII ignored this limit and the college grew to over 80 cardinals. He also made them all bishops. In 1970 Paul VI reformed the college of cardinals by increasing the number of electors to 120, not counting those 80 years of age and over who were excluded as electors.

Popes have appointed as cardinals archbishops of major sees and members of the Roman curia. They have tended to appoint people who were their friends and supporters as well as the leaders of major factions within the church. Sometimes appointments were sold to raise money for the papacy as occurred when the pope needed money to pay for the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

With the electors limited to the college of cardinals, those who wished to influence papal elections tried to pressure the cardinals or tried to get their friends appointed cardinals. The history of the papacy is filled with stories of Roman and Italian families, French and Spanish kings, and German emperors fighting for control of the papacy and the college of cardinals. And when persuasion was unsuccessful, they resorted to bribery, threats, and violence. Armies would threaten Rome and popes were imprisoned or forced into exile.

Catholic monarchs, following the example of the Byzantine emperors, also claimed the "right of exclusion" to block the election of candidates they judged to be inimical to their national interests. Spanish and French kings would frequently veto each others candidates. The last attempt to exercise such a veto was at the 1903 conclave where Cardinal Puszyna, archbishop of Krakow, reported that Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Hungary opposed the election of Cardinal Rampolla, the leading candidate. Pius X, elected at this conclave, abolished the right of exclusion.

According to the decree of Alexander III, the election of the pope required a two-thirds majority, a law that remained in force until Pius XII made it two-thirds plus one in 1945. Divisions within the college of Cardinals have sometimes made it difficult for a candidate to obtain a two-thirds majority vote until they turn to a compromise candidate. 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 the first case the election was finally forced by the senate and people of Rome who locked up the cardinals until a pope was chosen. Likewise, in the second case, the people of Viterbo not only locked the cardinals in, but tore off the roof of the building and put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water.

Gregory X institutionalized this practice in 1274 with the conclave, a word that comes from the Latin for locked with a key. Under his system, the cardinals would be locked in one room where they would sleep and vote. After three days their food would be limited to one dish a meal. After eight days they got only bread and water. Such severe regulations were not always enforced, but conclaves could still be dangerous to a cardinal's health. In July 1623, eight cardinals and 40 of their assistants died of malaria during a very hot conclave. Drastic measures have not been necessary in recent time to speed a conclave to its conclusion. The last conclave to last more than four days was in 1831. It lasted 54 days.


According to the reforms instituted by Pope Paul VI, only cardinals under 80 years of age can vote for a pope. No cardinal under 80 can be excluded from the conclave, even if he is excommunicated, unless he has been canonically deposed or has renounced the cardinalate. Paul VI also set the maximum number of voting cardinals at 120.

Besides the cardinals, very few people are admitted into the conclave: the secretary of the college of cardinals, the vicar of the Vatican (who currently is a cardinal) with one or more assistants to take care of the sacristy, the papal master of ceremonies and assistants, and an assistant to the cardinal dean. Also allowed into the conclave are some religious priests to act as confessors in various languages. Practical considerations allow for the presence of two doctors (a surgeon and general practitioner) and two medical assistants as well as the architect of the conclave and two technicians. In addition, there are others to take care of the needs to the conclave.

Those who are not ex officio members of the conclave are chosen by a majority of the cardinals on the recommendation of the camerlengo and the three cardinal assistants with the help of the commission mentioned earlier. The cardinals may not bring personal assistants with them except for reasons of serious illness, and then they must have the permission of the commission of cardinals responsible for screening conclavists. All these people are sworn to secrecy concerning what happens in the conclave.

After a mass in St. Peter's, the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel, and after a prayer is said, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered out with the Latin words "Extra omnes." No cardinal may leave the conclave without the permission of the other cardinals. The second part of the constitution "Romano Pontifici Eligendo" is then read and the cardinals take an oath to observe the rules laid down in the constitution, especially those enjoining secrecy and forbidding the interference in the election by civil authorities. They also swear that if elected they will "affirm, defend and if necessary vindicate integrally and strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See."

After the oath the cardinal dean gives a brief address exhorting the cardinals to carry out the election in the manner prescribed while looking only for the good of the universal church. Then those entrusted with guarding the conclave from the outside take an oath to fulfill their duties. These include the prefect of the papal household, the special delegate of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City, and the commandant of the Swiss Guard. Also taking an oath are the cleric prelates of the Apostolic Camera, the apostolic protonotaries, and the judges of the Roman Rota who are entrusted with guarding and inspecting whatever is brought into or taken out of the conclave.

The cardinals then retire to their rooms except for the camerlengo and the three cardinal assistants who oversee the locking of the conclave after they have searched the premises for any unauthorized persons. As part of this inspection the technicians sweep the area for bugs or other electronic devices since no communications is allowed with the outside. Nor are radios, recording devices, or cameras allowed in the conclave. All phone lines are disconnected except for one in the comerlengo's room to be used only for emergencies. These inspections are continued during the conclave to maintain security. Even the windows are sealed and curtains shut. Meanwhile the outside is being secured and locked, with the key being kept by the special delegate of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City who is the top lay official in Vatican City.

No one may enter to speak to anyone in the conclave unless they do so in the presence of the prelates charged with guarding the conclave. No newspapers are allowed into the conclave. No letters or documents are allowed in or out of the conclave unless they are inspected by the secretary of the conclave and the commission charged with guarding the conclave. The only exception is for letters between the Apostolic Penitentiary and the cardinal major penitentiary. The purpose of these regulations is to insulate the cardinals from outside pressure and to preserve the secrecy of the conclave.

The next morning the cardinals assemble in the Sistine Chapel for mass and immediately afterwards the election begins. The constitution "Romano Pontifici Eligendo" describes three ways in which an election can take place. The first is by acclamation or by inspiration when the cardinals, "as it were through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, freely and spontaneously, unanimously and aloud, proclaim one individual as supreme pontiff." This form of election must be accepted unanimously by the cardinals.

The second method is by delegation when the cardinal electors entrust to a group of their members (an odd number not to exceed nine) the power of electing on behalf of them all. Whomever the group chooses will then be pope. Again, the decision to follow this method must be unanimous, and the cardinals must unanimously agree on the procedures to be followed by this committee. For example, "whether they should first propose to the entire body of electors the person whom they intend to elect, or whether they should carry out the election directly; whether all the delegates should agree upon the same person or whether they should nominate only a member of the electoral body or also someone outside it, etc." The committee must complete its work in the time frame set by the other cardinals or its mandate expires.

The third and ordinary manner of electing the pope is by scrutiny, the name coming from the scrutineers who count the ballots. The regulations for this method are very detailed to eliminate any possibility of electoral fraud. Three scrutineers are chosen by lot from among the electors with the least senior cardinal deacon drawing the names. He draws three additional names of cardinals (Infirmari) who will collect the ballots of any cardinals in the conclave who are too sick to come to the Sistine Chapel. A final three names are drawn by lot to act as revisers who review the work done by the scrutineers.

Only the cardinals are allowed in the chapel during the actual election. The electors use rectangular cards as ballots with "Eligo in Summum Pontificiem" printed at the top. When folded down the middle the ballot is only one inch wide. Each cardinal in secret prints or writes the name of his choice on the ballot in a way that disguises his hand writing. Then one at a time, in order of precedence, the cardinals approach the altar with their folded card held up so that it can be seen. On the altar there is a receptacle (traditionally a large chalice) covered by a plate (a paten). After kneeling in prayer for a short time, the cardinal rises and swears, "I call to witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I consider should be elected." He then places the ballot on the paten. Finally he picks up the paten and uses it to drop the ballot into the chalice. The use of the paten makes it difficult for a cardinal to drop two ballots into the chalice. The first scrutineer also uses the paten as a cover when shaking the chalice to mix the ballots.

Despite the oath, many cardinals on the first ballot cast a "complementary" vote for their patron or someone they admire but who has no chance of being pope. Sometimes the complementary vote will be for the senior cardinal from their country or their part of the world. In the past it is clear that electors often voted during early ballots for candidates they did not want elected as a means of disguising their true intentions.

Valérie Pirie reports that in 1513, "Many of the cardinals, wishing to temporize and conceal their real intentions, had voted for the man they considered least likely to have any supporters. As luck would have it thirteen [of the twenty five] prelates had selected the same candidate, with the result that they all but elected Arborense, the most worthless nonentity present." At the 1559 conclave, Cardinal La Queva secretly approached a large number of cardinals and individually asked them to vote for him on the next ballot so that he would get at least one vote during the conclave. None of them knew that others had been approached. The trick was discovered just before the vote took place. Since the cardinal was known as a practical joker the trick caused more humor than consternation.

The second vote is in earnest as cardinals begin to vote for the real candidates. In subsequent votes it is important that a candidate keep increasing his tally and not stall short of the goal as happened to the leading contenders (Cardinal Giovanni Benelli and Cardinal Siri) at the second conclave in 1978. As the tally mounts a bandwagon effect can take place as uncommitted cardinals turn to the candidate whose supporters continue to increase. If it is obvious who is going to win on the next vote, most cardinals will go for the winner in order to show their support for the new pope. Sometimes the final holdouts will cast blank votes in order to hide which factions is refusing to come on board.

In order to make sure that no cardinal voted twice, in the past cardinals signed their names on a part of the ballot but this is no longer done. Today the ballots are first counted by the scrutineers before being unfolded. If the number of ballots does not correspond to the number of electors, the ballots are burned without being counted and another vote is immediately taken. In addition, if during the tabulation of the votes the scrutineers discover two cards folded in such a way as to appear to be filled in by one elector, they are counted as one vote if they are for the same person. If they are for different persons, then neither vote is counted.

If the number of cards does match the number of electors, the scrutineers, who are sitting at a table in front of the altar, begin counting the votes. The first scrutineer unfolds the card, notes the name on a piece of paper, and passes the card to the second scrutineer. He then notes the name and passes it to the third scrutineer who reads it aloud for all the cardinals to hear and make note of it. The last scrutineer pierces each card with a threaded needle through the word "eligo" and places it on the thread. After all the ballots have been read, the ends of the thread are tied and the cards thus joined are placed in an empty receptacle. The scrutineers then add up the totals for each candidate. The three revisers then check both the cards and the notes of the scrutineers to make sure that they performed their task faithfully and exactly.

The ballots and notes (including those made by any cardinal) are then burned unless another vote is to take place immediately. If a second vote takes place, the materials from two votes are burned at the same time. The ballots are burned by the secretary of the conclave and the master of ceremonies who adds special chemicals make the smoke white or black. At the two 1978 conclaves, the master of ceremonies, Virgilio Noè, in burning the ballots didn't listen to the custodians' instructions so that the smoke gave confusing signals to the people in St. Peter's square.

If no one receives the required two-thirds-plus-one votes, a second vote takes place immediately. There can be two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon. If after three days (twelve votes) the cardinals have still not elected anyone, the voting sessions can be suspended for one day for prayer and discussion among the voters. Then another seven votes take place followed by a suspension and another seven votes. During the third pause, the camerlengo consults with the electors concerning the manner of proceeding. For example, would they like to try the delegation method? Would they like to limit the candidates to the top two in the last vote? Would they like to determine the election by an absolute majority plus one? Any of these changes would require unanimous approval of the electors before they could be tried.

Although there have been long conclaves in the past, a long one today would be unusual. In the last 160 years, the two longest conclaves took only four days. One has to go back to 1831 to find a conclave lasting 54 days or to 1800 for one that lasted three and a half months.

After the election of the pope, the secretary of the conclave, the master of ceremonies and his assistants are called into the room with the cardinals. The dean of the college of cardinals then asks the one elected, "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?" After he says yes, the dean asks him by what name he wants to be called. The master of ceremonies then draws up documents testifying to the acceptance and the pope's new name. The custom of taking a new name began in 533 when a priest named Mercury was elected pope and felt that the name of a pagan God was inappropriate for the successor of St. Peter.

On rare occasions people have turned down the papacy. When offered the papacy at the Viterbo conclave mentioned above, St. Philip Benizi fled and hid until another candidate was chosen. Likewise St. Charles Boremeo, one of the few cardinals to be canonized, turned down the papacy when it was offered to him. Again when Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, the 76-year old archbishop of Milan, began receiving votes during the October 1978 conclave, he made it clear that he would refuse the papacy if elected. But normally those approached accept.

The cardinals can elect whomever they wish as pope as long as he is a baptized male, and even the baptized part is negotiable as long as the man is willing to be baptized, ordained a priest, and then consecrated bishop of Rome. (If one believes that a woman could be a bishop, than a woman could be elected pope). In 590 a layman, a civil lawyer who had been prefect of Rome, was elected Pope Gregory I, later know as Gregory the Great. But in recent centuries the practice has been to elect someone from the college of cardinals. Since in the past some cardinals were not bishops, sometimes a priest or layman was chosen. A priest was last chosen in 1831 when Gregory XVI was elected. Even lay cardinals have been chosen as occurred in 1455 when Cardinal Alfonso Borgia was elected. Today there are no cardinals under 80 who are not already bishops.

As soon as the man elected consents to being pope, if he is already a bishop, he is immediately bishop of Rome and pope with full authority. No other ceremony is necessary. If he is not a bishop, he must be ordained immediately and then he becomes bishop of Rome. The cardinals then individually approach the new pope, pay him homage, and promise their obedience. After the conclave, the pope used to be crowned with the tiara by the senior cardinal deacon, but John Paul I did away with that custom.

Once a pope is elected, his election cannot be invalidated even if he bought the election. Nor is he bound by any promises he made to get votes, even if these promises were made under oath.


The procedures used to elect a pope are not of divine origin, and many people have suggested different methods of choosing a pope. History teaches us that any electoral process must be judged especially on two grounds: Does it limit or increase the danger of manipulation by civil authorities? Will it help or hinder church unity?

Paul VI gave serious consideration to changing the method of papal election. In 1973 he revealed a tentative plan to expand the electorate to allow the Eastern-rite patriarchs and the 15 members of the Council of the Permanent Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops to join the cardinals in electing the pope. Twelve members of the council are elected by the synod; three bishops from each continent (the Americas are considered one continent by Europeans!). The remaining three members of the council are appointed by the pope. Since some of these men might be cardinals already, it is uncertain how many noncardinals would actually be electors.

Some papal advisers argued against any change simply because it was against tradition. Others supported the status quo on the grounds that the cardinals, who are assigned titular churches in Rome, are considered members of the Roman clergy. This makes Rome one of the last dioceses in the Western church where the clergy (or at least a part of it) still elects their bishop. To add noncardinal electors would violate this canonical legerdemain.

Paul VI limited his changes to increasing the college to 120 cardinals who must be under 80 years of age. This change in itself was revolutionary. He also internationalized the college so that it became less curial, less Italian, and less Western European and more African and Asian.

History teaches that there is no perfect method for electing a pope. Even Jesus did not do too well since his choice, St. Peter, denied him and ran away on Good Friday. Those who would like the electoral process more democratic should examine the early history of papal elections which were rife with strife and mob violence. They should also study contemporary Italian politics. One shudders at the thought of the people of Rome electing the pope. Not only have they elected Communist mayors in the past, there would be nothing to prevent popular papal elections becoming as corrupt as the rest of Italian politics. The papacy would simply become another prize for Italian politicians.

The election of the pope by the clergy of Rome also raises serious questions. Rome has very few priests who were actually born in Rome. The Rome diocese would be swamped with politically ambitious clerics from all over Italy if priests incardinated in Rome became the papal electors.

Some have proposed the election of the pope by a special synod of bishops. This would imitate some of the Eastern-rite churches where metropolitans and patriarchs are elected by synods of bishops. Election by a special synod would be an attractive option, but the method for selecting the synod members would inevitably be controversial. How representative should it be? Should representation be based on the number of Catholics, the number of practicing Catholics, or the number of bishops? How would the members be selected? Would the selection of synodal members take place after the pope's death? Within what time frame? Would campaigning be allowed? How divisive would such a method be? What would happen in countries where the church is not free from state interference?

Or the election could be by an ecumenical council. During the Second Vatican Council some people wanted the council rather than the college of cardinals to choose the successor of John XXIII. This would avoid the question of representation since all bishops would attend including over 900 retired bishops. But a 3,200-member electorate would be cumbersome. It would be almost impossible lock up such a large group, and the divisions and politics would be difficult to hide. A council that unanimously chose a pope would certainly help church unity, but an acrimonious council with members publicly fighting for months over papal candidates would be a disaster for church unity.

But those defending the election of the pope by the college of cardinals must also acknowledge that their system has produced numerous bad popes including those who gave disastrous leadership to the church in the centuries prior to the Reformation. In the past the college was not immune to influence from civil authorities using threats, violence, and bribes. Nor has the college's choice or manner of proceeding always fostered church unity.

Today papal elections are free from interference by civil authorities, but there is no guarantee that this freedom will continue indefinitely. In fact, history warns us against complacently expecting rulers to keep their hands off the papacy. The present procedures encourage continuity between papacies since the pope appoints many of the electors who will choose his successor. In general, this is good for church unity because it keeps the church from being jerked around by popes with radically different agendas. On the other hand, in a rapidly changing world, excessive continuity may endanger unity if the church cannot respond to the signs of the times.

No electoral system is perfect. Picking a name out of a hat, as was done to replace Judas, might be preferable to a divisive election. Ultimately a mere human being is elected. He will be helped by the prayers of all the church and by the advice of those he selects. But ultimately each Christian must look to Jesus for salvation, not to the pope. The church is the people of God gathered around the successors of Peter and the Apostles. Making the church a loving community in prayer and service is the job of every Christian, not just the hierarchy. The pope and the bishops exercise an indispensable role in this process, but the community becomes the body of Christ only if it is open to the Spirit.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. This academic year he is a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, where he is writing a book on the Vatican.

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