By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J. is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996).
Although there is no reason to think that Pope Benedict XVI may get sick or die in the immediate future, this is the lot of all humans. As a result, these pages have been prepared to answer questions about the transition from one papacy to the next. This page will be updated as needed. Journalists with questions, suggestions or corrections, may contact Father Reese by clicking here. For Reese's comments prior to the 2005 conclave, click here.
Updated April 30, 2006.
On March 24, 2006, Benedict created 15 new cardinals, 12 of whom were under 80 years of age and therefore elegible to vote in a papal concalve. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict decided to follow church rules and keep the total number of cardinals under 80 years of age at 120, the number established by Paul VI. Under John Paul the number went up to 135 in 2001 and 2003.
If a pope dies after the names of new cardinals are anounced but before the consistory, the men nominated as cardinals are not cardinals and they do not get to go to the conclave and vote for the next pope. For example, Hans Urs Von Balthasar was never a cardinal although he was announced in 1989 but died before the consistory.
The English translation of Canon 351, #2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law can be misleading on this because of the use of words like "announcement" and "publication." The translation by the CLSA (Canon Law Society of America) reads:
Cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff which is made public in the presence of the College of Cardinals. From the moment of announcement they are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law.
The British translation reads:
Cardinals are created by decree of the Roman Pontiff, which in fact is published in the presence of the College of Cardinals. From the moment of publication, they are bound by the obligations and they enjoy the rights defined in the law.
The Latin text is:
Cardinales creantur Romani Pontificis decreto, quod quidem coram Cardinalium Collegio publicatur; inde a publicatione facta officiis tenentur atque iuribus gaudent lege definitis.
I consulted four prominent canon lawyers in the U.S. and one in Rome (who consulted his Roman colleagues) and all agreed that if the pope dies before the consistory, the men are not cardinals. They say that cardinals are created at the consistory when the names are read out. That is the technical meaning of the words in the code.
The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law from the CLSA says: "This reflects the time when the college served as the papal court and appointments to the cardinalatial dignity were subject to debate and required the consent of the college." In modern times the consent has become pro forma.
The text of Universi Dominici Gregis supports the view that they are not cardinals until the consistory: "A Cardinal of Holy Roman Church who has been created and published before the College of Cardinals thereby has the right to elect the Pope."
Supporting this view is the language that the John Paul used in his 2003 announcement: "The month of October, the month of the Holy Rosary, is approaching. I entrust to Our Lady in a special way the consistory that I intend to hold on October 21, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of my pontificate. Putting aside once again the established numerical limit, I will create new cardinals." Note he uses the future tense, "I will create new cardinals."
Finally, the Annuario Pontificio uses the formula "creato e pubblicato nel Consistoro" in the brief biography of each of the cardinals and uses the dates of the consistories not the earlier announcements for cardinals.
If the pope becomes sick, he can delegate some of his 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 other members of their families. 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. Such delegation presumes that
the pope is still capable of making at least some decisions (such as the decision to delegate) and communicating. He cannot, however, delegate some aspects of his authority, such as his ability to teach infallibly.
The life of the church, which is lived mostly at the parish level, continues. Mass is celebrated and the sacraments are received. Bishops continue to run their dioceses. In the Vatican, the pope appoints people whom he trusts to follow the policies he has set. They can continue to do the ordinary business of the Vatican, but they cannot change policies without his approval. Also, when differences of opinion arise in the Vatican or between diocesan bishops and Vatican officials, these would normally be brought to the pope for decision. If he is too sick to deal with these, problems will not be dealt with.
Yes, a pope can resign. The number popes who may have resigned has been estimated as high as 10, but the historical evidence is limited. Most recently, during the Council of Constance in the 15th century, the Gregory XII resigned to bring about the end of the Western Schism and a new pope was elected in 1417. Pope Celestine V’s resignation in 1294 is the most famous because Dante placed him in hell for it. Most modern 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 canon law in 1917 provided for the resignation of a pope as do the regulations established by Paul VI in 1975 and John Paul II in 1996. However, a resignation induced through fear or fraud would be invalid. In addition, canonists argue that a person resigning from an office must be of sound mind (canon 187).
Historical evidence for papal resignations is limited, especially if one eliminates resignations that may have been forced.
- Clement I (92?-101). Epiphanius asserted that Clement gave up the pontificate to Linus for the sake of peace and became pope again after the death of Cletus.
- Pontian (230-235). Allegedly resigned after being exiled to the mines of Sardinia during persecution of Maximinus Thrax.
- Cyriacus. A fictional character created in the Middle Ages who supposedly received a heavenly command to resign.
- Marcellinus (296-304). Abdicated or was deposed after complying with Diocletian's order to offer sacrifice to pagan gods.
- Martin I (649-655). Exiled by Emperor Constans II to Crimea. Before he died, clergy of Rome elected a successor whom he appears to have approved.
- Benedict V (964). After one month in office, he accepted deposition by Emperor Otto I.
- Benedict IX (1032-45). Benedict resigned after selling the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.
- Gregory VI (1045-46). Deposed for simony by Henry III.
- Celestine V (1294). A hermit, elected at age of 80 and overwhelmed by the office, resigned. He was imprisoned by his successor.
- Gregory XII (1406-15). Resigned at request of Council of Constance to help end the Great Western Schism.
Source: Patrick Granfield, "Papal Resignation" (The Jurist, winter and spring 1978) and J. N. D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986).
Benedict has given no indication of his view about papal resiganation. He appears to be in good health, so this is not an issue. In response to a question about the possibility of John Paul resigning, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, said on Feb. 7, 2005, "Let's leave this to the pope's conscience. If there is a man in the church who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there is a man who loves the church, if there is a man with marvelous wisdom, it's the pope." The same would be true of Benedict.
Problems would arise if pope went into a coma. 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.
Nor is it clear who would be responsible for making medical decisions for a pope in a coma. Prior to the 19th century, 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, old friend or person appointed by the pope himself 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 a pope continued in a coma for long time and thus incapable of communication, the church would be in serious trouble. Prior to John Paul's death, some believed that he had written a secret document to deal with this possibility, but his secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, indicated after the pope's death that this was not the case. There has been no indication that Benedict has written such a document. In any case, such a document might be questioned canonically since it was not formally promulgated. If he were a simple bishop, his "see" or diocese would be considered "impeded" and the provisions of canon law would be followed.
If a pope became mentally disabled, the church would face a constitutional crisis because there are no procedures for dealing with such a situation as there is in the 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Father James Provost wrote in America (September 30, 2000):
Medieval canonists argued that if the pope became mentally disabled, he could no longer function as a human being and should be treated as if he were dead; a new pope would then be elected. More recent scholars have argued that the Holy Spirit would never let such a situation happen, although that seems a weak argument in light of the precedent of Urban VI (pope from 1378 to 1389), whose serious emotional or mental disturbances led the cardinals to exercise the option of electing another pope. This launched the church on the disastrous Western Schism (1378-1417).
A resignation could also be problematic because to resign from office one must be of sound mind (canon 187). If any other bishop became mentally disabled, his see would be considered "impeded" and the provisions of canon law would be followed.
Canon 335 of the present Code of Canon Law directs that special laws are to be followed if the Apostolic See becomes impeded but no special legislation has been promulgated. "This is a rather serious vacuum in the church’s constitutional law," wrote Rev. James Provost in America (September 30, 2000). Provost argued:
Since there are no rules for what to do in this situation, the standard canon law procedure is for the officials to turn to parallel cases for direction. Moreover, whatever they do will have to be seen by the church at large as being correct in order to avoid cries of foul play, or even another schism.
What parallels would be of help in this situation? First, the standard for what it means to be impeded is already given in the church’s law concerning a diocese. The pope is a diocesan bishop, so the norm of being incapable of communicating, even by letter, would apply to him. Second, who makes the determination that the pope is so impeded that something must be done? When a pope dies, it is the camerlengo who officially makes this determination. The camerlengo is a very trusted cardinal named by the pope to this special job. He would appear to be the logical one to make the determination that the pope is impeded. He needs to rely on truly competent experts in determining that the pope is dead; the same would be true in determining if the pope is impeded.
Who takes over while the pope is impeded? In a diocese, a coadjutor or auxiliary bishop automatically does so; otherwise, the diocesan bishop is supposed to have drawn up a list of those to be named. Only if there is no list do the consultors [a committee of priests appointed by the bishop] elect an administrator. The pope already has an auxiliary—the cardinal vicar of Rome, who does the daily running of the Roman diocese for the pope. On the other hand, when a pope dies, the camerlengo together with two other cardinals provides a sort of collegial administration until a new pope is elected. A similar process could be followed if a pope were impeded. But this would be different from the way the law says an impeded diocese is to be run, and it should be worked out in the section on “special laws” for the impeded Roman See that is still missing.
But the person who takes over would not be pope, and so could not exercise those special prerogatives that go with the papal office, such as the exercise of supreme jurisdiction or the gift of infallibility. This would hold up the appointment of bishops, action by the Roman Curia on issues of major importance that require the pope’s prior approval, the creation of new dioceses and the like.
For the complete text of "What If the Pope Became Disabled?" by James Provost America, (September 30, 2000).
The interregnum and election of a new pope are governed by the rules established in the 1996 constitution Universi Dominici Gregis ("Of the Lord's Whole Flock") of John Paul II.
When the pope dies, the prefect of the papal household (Bishop James Harvey) informs the camerlengo (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. As late as 1903, at the death of Leo XIII, this verification was ritually done by tapping the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer. It may also have been done with John XXIII, but not with Paul VI or John Paul I or II. 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 (In 2005, the sostituto, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, short-circuted the process by simply announcing the pope's death to the people praying in St. Peter's Square). Meanwhile the prefect of the papal household tells the dean (Cardinal Angelo Sodano) 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 from the media.
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. Modern popes have been more concerned that their private papers not fall 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. (In 2005, the John Paul's private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz ingored the pope's instructions and did not destroy his personal papers.) The pope’s Fisherman’s ring and his seal are broken to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries. No autopsy is performed--which can lead to wild media speculation if the pope dies suddenly, as occurred with John Paul I.
After the death of the pope, the cardinals arrange for the funeral rites for the pope, to be celebrated for nine consecutive days, in accordance with the Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis. The date for the funeral and burial is set by the college of cardinals, but Universi Dominici Gregis states it is to "take place, except for special reasons, between the fourth and sixth day after death." The funeral is arranged by the camerlengo in accordance with instructions left him by the pope.
All the cardinals and archbishops in charge of departments in the Roman Curia, including the secretary of state (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), lose their jobs when the pope dies. The ordinary faculties of these offices, which are run by their secretaries during the interregnum, do not cease on the death of the pope, but serious and controversial matters are to await the election of a new pope. The offices are run by their secretaries who remain in position, as do the secretary for relations with states (Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo) and the sostituto (Archbishop Leonardo Sandri). If the matter cannot be postponed, the college of cardinals can entrust it to the prefect or president who was in charge of the office when the pope died (or to other cardinals who were members of that congregation or council). Any decision made is provisional until confirmed by the new pope.
Three major officials do not lose their jobs: the vicar of the Diocese of Rome (Cardinal Camillo Ruini), the major penitentiary (Cardinal J. Francis Stafford) and the camerlengo. The vicar for Rome provides for the pastoral needs of the Diocese of Rome and continues to have all the powers he had under the deceased pope. The major penitentiary deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See, and he is allowed to continue functioning because the door to forgiveness should never be closed.
The camerlengo (Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) 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. 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 chosen by lot from among those cardinals under 80. During the interregnum he reports to the college of cardinals, which governs the church until a pope is elected. He also organizes 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. A commission headed by the camerlengo with three cardinals (chosen by lot and replaced every three days from among the cardinals under 80) can deal with lesser issues. In 2005, John Paul died on April 2 and the first meeting of the cardinals was on April 4.
Any discussion, let alone campaigning, prior to the death of a pope is strictly forbidden. The prohibition against discussing papal succession while the pope is still alive dates back to Felix IV (526-30), who instructed the clergy and the Roman Senate to elect his archdeacon, Boniface, as his successor. The senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope's successor during his lifetime.
Even earlier, a Roman Synod in 499 forbade the clergy from promising or seeking votes.
St. Symmachus gathered at St. Peter's basilica a council of seventy-two bishops, with the purpose of searching for a way to avoid in the future the return to similar scandals.
With the unanimous consent of the assembly, he promulgated an important decree on the papal elections that can be summarized in the following three articles:
1. Prohibits for all the clergy, deacons or priests, under pain of deposition and excommunication, to promise his vote or to seek votes for the election of the future pontiff during the life and behind the back of the reigning pontiff. Prohibits, under the same pains, to attend meetings held for that same purpose.
2. For the purpose of impeding hidden frauds and clandestine conspiracies, it is established that those who reveal to the Church these low maneuvers inspired by a detestable ambition, not only will be protected from all prosecution but will be greatly rewarded.
3. Finally, if the pope dies suddenly, without having had any time to deal with the subject of his successor, will be elected the one who has received the votes of all the clergy, or, in case of a tie, of the majority of the voters. (Decret. Gratiani, part. I, dist. LXXIX, c. 10, Si transitus, t. I, p. 243).
When these decrees were presented to the assembly, the acclamations resounded, and all the fathers, standing up, wrote: "That it be done like this in the future! That the pontifical elections be done from now on in this manner and not in any other!" These prescriptions were signed by all the bishops present, numbering seventy-three, plus the sixty-six priests that attended the meeting. [See Ut si quis papa superstite, constitution, Roman synod of March 1, 499, St. Symmachus (498-514). Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, edited by Giovanni Domenico Mansi, vol. VIII, pp. 229-238.]
Discussions prior to the conclave do occur privately among cardinals, but public campaigning, even after the pope's death, is frowned upon and would probably be counterproductive. Cardinals who travel a great deal are sometimes suspected of doing this in order to meet and become known to other cardinals prior to the conclave. The
cardinals have also gotten to know each other at synods of bishops,
extraordinary consistories and other meetings where they see each other in
action. Normally the discussion of candidates is done privately by cardinals over dinner or in small groups.
Unless circumstances prevent it, the conclave takes place
inside Vatican City and begins 15 days after death of the pope. For serious
reasons, the cardinals can defer the beginning of the conclave, but it must
begin within 20 days of the pope's death. The exact date and time are set by
the college of cardinals. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, with
the cardinals living in the five-story Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican residence with 105 two-room
suites and 26 single rooms built in 1996, which is vacated by its usual residents during a
conclave. The rooms are assigned by lot. A number of elections in the 19th
century were held in the Quirinal Palace, which was one of the pope's palaces
until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. The last election to take place
outside Rome was in Venice in 1800.
In the 13th 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 in 1243. In the second case, the people of
Viterbo in 1271 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. The word
"conclave" comes from the Latin, "with a key," as in locked
with a key. Today the cardinals are locked in to ensure secrecy and to protect
them from outside influence. Before the conclave begins, all telephones, cell
phones, radios, televisions and Internet connections are removed. No letters or
newspapers are permitted. All the rooms are swept for electronic bugs by
trained technicians. Whether this will be sufficient to prevent more sophisticated
eavesdropping remains to be seen.
All cardinals who are under 80 years of age when the pope dies have
the right to vote for the next pope, unless they have been canonically deposed
or, with the permission of the pope, have renounced the cardinalate. Even an
excommunicated cardinal can attend. A cardinal who had resigned and joined
Bonaparte attempted to enter the conclave in 1800 but was turned away. Once inside
the conclave, an elector may not leave except because of illness or other grave
reasons acknowledged by a majority of the cardinals.
Also permitted in the conclave are
nurses for infirm cardinals, two medical doctors, religious priests who can
hear confessions in various languages, the secretary of the College of
Cardinals, the master of papal liturgical celebrations with two masters of
ceremonies and two religious attached to the papal sacristy, and an assistant
chosen by the cardinal dean. Also permitted are a suitable number of persons
for preparing and serving meals and for housekeeping. They must swear absolute
and perpetual secrecy concerning anything they learn concerning the election of
All cardinals under 80 years of age when the pope dies have the right to vote for the next pope. As of May 1, 2006, there are 120 cardinal electors, of whom 12 were appointed by Benedict, one by Paul VI and the rest by John Paul II. Additional Cardinals turning 80 in 2006 include: Agostino Cacciavillan (Aug. 14), Marian Jaworski (Aug. 21), Jean-Marie Lustiger (Sept. 17), Ricardo Carles Gordo (Sept 24), William Baum (Nov. 21), Emmanuel Wamala (Dec. 15) and Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez (Dec. 23).
The average age of the electors is 71.7 years of age. About 50% are from Europe--16.7% from Italy; 21.7% from the rest of Western Europe (including Berlin); 11.7% from Eastern Europe. About 35% are from the Third World. Asia has 10.8%; Africa 7.5%; Latin America 16.7%; Oceania, 1.7%. The United States has 10.8% (not counting Cardinal Husar, who gave up his U.S. citizenship after returning to Ukraine), second only to Italy; Canada 2.5%. Curial cardinals make up about 25% of the electors.
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. 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. John Paul II exceeded this limit by two in 1998 and by 15 in 2001 and 2003. Benedict returned to the legal limit of 120 in his first consistory in 2006.
With his first appointments, Benedict appointed two Americans to be cardinals, bringing the U.S. total to 13 under 80 years of age, the highest number ever to have the right to vote in a papal conclave. After each of the last three consistories (1998, 2001 and 2003), the U.S. total was 11 cardinals under 80. Considering the fact that Benedict, unlike his predecessor, has kept the voting college to 120 cardinals, this increase for the U.S. is even more significant. It raises the American bloc to 10.8 percent of the cardinal electors when normally it has been 8 or 9 percent. The Americans appointed cardinals (William Levada and Sean O'Malley) were not a surprise since it is normal for men in their positions to be cardinals. One of the 13 American cardinals, William Baum, will turn 80 on Nov. 21, which will bring the number of U.S. cardinals down to 12, still higher than normal.
With the number of voting cardinals kept at 120, rather than the 135 after the 2001 and 2003 consistories, Benedict's choices were difficult. For example he passed over Paris and Dublin, which normally have cardinals, as well as Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world. His choices were also limited by the fact that most of the new cardinals had been appointed to their jobs by John Paul II, William Levada, Stanislaw Dziwisz, and Jorge Urosa Savino being the exceptions. Levada was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Benedict. Dziwisz, John Paul's personal secretary, was appointed to Krakow by Benedict. The last personal secretary to be made a cardinal had served Pius XI. He was made a cardinal by John XXIII. Jorge Urosa Savino was appointed to Caracas by Benedict.
The choices Benedict made could have an impact on the next conclave. For example, after the 2003 consistory, Europe had 48 percent of the vote and the Third World had 40 percent. After the March consistory the Europeans will have 50 percent of the vote and the Third World only 35 percent. Benedict has increased the voice of the First World (Europe and the U.S.) in the college of cardinals and reduced the voice of the Third World.
The biggest surprise is that no African was made a cardinal except for Archbishop Dery who is over 80 years of age and therefore cannot vote. Africa has had as many as 13 cardinal electors and 9.6 percent of the vote, but after the March consistory, it will have only 9 electors and 7.5 percent of the vote. Granted the way many people, including Vatican officials, have said that the future of the church is in Africa because of the large number of conversions and vocations, the absence of an African on the list is surprising.
Asia received three new cardinals, bringing their total to 13, the same number they had after the 2001 and 2003 consistories, but less than after the 1998 consistory where they reached 14 and 11.5 percent of the vote. Asia and the U.S. will have the same number of votes.
Also taking a slight hit was Italy, which is down to only 20 cardinal electors, less than after the 1998 (22), 2001 (24) and 2003 (23) consistories. This continues a trend started by John Paul of reducing the size of the Italian bloc in the college of cardinals. This is the same number of cardinals Italy had after the 1994 consistory.
Latin America also took a slight hit. With one new cardinal, it will have 20 cardinals or 16.7 percent of the electors. After the 1998 consistory it had 23 (18.9%), after 2001 it had 27 (20%), and after 2003 it had 24 (17.8%).
For John Paul's impact on the college of cardinals, click here.
Although the college of cardinals elects the pope today,
this was not the rule until the 11th century. Some early
popes (including perhaps St. Peter) appointed their successors. Although appointing one's successor was provided for by the Roman Synod of 499 cited above, this
method fell out of favor when Felix IV (526-530) and Boniface II (530-532) tried to impose controversial candidates as their successors.
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. The one elected was then ordained by the bishops of the surrounding
towns. 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 the Christians of Rome were so divided over an election that fighting
broke out. Pagan soldiers broke up the fight and exiled both men to the
Sardinian tin mines. In 366, mobs and hired thugs from opposing factions
invaded churches and killed opponents by the hundreds. Honorius (393-423) was the first Roman emperor to settle a disputed election by backing Boniface over Eulalius. Nobles, emperors
and kings continued interfering in papal elections as the church became rich and
electors were limited to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome by the Roman synod of 499 (although in some elections some of the laity still participated until the 8th century). This followed the pattern of other dioceses
where the clergy elected the bishop. The man elected pope was normally a priest
or deacon. No bishop was elected pope until 891 (Formosus), because it was
considered improper for a bishop to leave the diocese for which he had
originally been ordained a bishop. A bishop was considered "married"
to his diocese, and moving to another diocese was comparable to adultery.
As early as 769, Pope Stephen III (768-772) convened a synod that restricted the electors to the cardinal priests and deacons. This rule was revoked and the vote was returned to the people and clergy of Rome by the Roman Constitution of 824. It also required the approval of the Western Emperor, although this requirement was eliminated by Marinus I (882-884). The Roman synod of 898 once again limited the vote to the clergy, who were to do it in the presence of the senate and people of Rome.
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. Alexander III modified this
system by including all the cardinals in the election process from the
beginning. Since 1179, only cardinals have voted for the pope except for the election in
1417 that ended the Western Schism. In this election, 30 representatives
chosen from the Council of Constance joined the 23 cardinals (5 from the Roman
line and 18 from the Pisa line) in electing the new pope.
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, often of what we would now call charities or social
services. 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. Things got very complicated when some bishops were named cardinal priests and deacons, and some priests were named cardinal deacons or bishops. (There were even some cardinals who received tonsure but were not deacons, priests or bishops). John
XXIII decreed that all the cardinals should be bishops, although he kept the three
orders. Some priests who were made cardinals after the age of 80, like Avery Dulles,
have been exempted from becoming bishops.
On the morning the conclave begins, the cardinal electors
celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon they gather in the
Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace and solemnly process to the Sistine
Chapel. The cardinals take an oath to observe the rules laid down in Universi
Dominici Gregis, especially those enjoining secrecy. They also swear not to
support interference in the election by any secular authorities or "any
group of people or individuals who might wish to intervene in the election of
the Roman pontiff." Finally, the electors swear that whoever is elected
will carry out the "munus Petrinum of pastor of the universal
church" and will "affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and
temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See." Another section of the
constitution says that the new pope is not bound by any oaths or promises made
prior to his election.
After the oath is taken, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered
out with the Latin words "Extra omnes," "Everybody out!" The Sistine Chapel and the
Domus Sanctae Marthae are then closed to unauthorized persons by the camerlengo.
Outside the conclave, the camerlengo is assisted by the sostituto of the
Secretariat of State, who directs Vatican personnel to protect the integrity
and security of the conclave.
After everyone else leaves, an ecclesiastic chosen earlier by the college of
cardinals gives a meditation "concerning the grave duty incumbent on them
and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the universal
church, solum Deum prae oculis habentes [having only God before your
eyes]." When he finishes, he leaves the Sistine Chapel with the master of
papal liturgical ceremony so that only the cardinal electors remain. The time
in the chapel is for prayer and voting in silence, not campaign speeches.
Negotiations and arguments are to take place outside the chapel. If they wish,
the cardinals can immediately begin the election process and hold one ballot on
the afternoon of the first day. If no one receives the required two-thirds
vote in the balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet
again the next morning.
The regulations for balloting are very detailed to eliminate
any suspicion of electoral fraud--no hanging chads here. Three
"scrutineers" (vote counters) are chosen by lot from the electors,
with the least senior cardinal deacon drawing the names. He draws three
additional names of cardinals (called infirmarii) 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. Each morning and afternoon, new
scrutineers, infirmarii and revisers are chosen by lot.
The electors use rectangular cards
as ballots with "Eligo in summum pontificem" (“I elect as
supreme pontiff”) 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 handwriting. One at a time, in
order of precedence, the cardinals approach the altar with their folded ballot
held up so that it can be seen. After kneeling in
prayer for a short time, the cardinal rises and swears, "I call as my
witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one
who before God I think should be elected." He then places the ballot in a silver and gilded bronze urn shaped like a wok with lid. There is a second smaller urn for ballots cast in the Domus Sanctae Marthae by cardinals too ill to go to the Sistine Chapel.
The first scrutineer shakes the egg-shaped urn to mix the ballots. The last scrutineer
counts the ballots before they are 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. If the number of ballots 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
ballot, notes the name on a piece of paper and passes the ballot to the second
scrutineer. He notes the name and passes the ballot to the third scrutineer,
who reads it aloud for all the cardinals to hear. If there are two names on a
single ballot, the ballot is not counted. The last scrutineer pierces each
ballot 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 together and the ballots thus joined are placed in a third urn.
The scrutineers then add up the totals for each candidate. Finally, the three
revisers check both the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to make sure
that they performed their task faithfully and exactly.
To be elected, two thirds of the
votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors
present. Should it be impossible to divide the number of cardinals present into
three equal parts, for the validity of the election one additional vote is
required. Thus if all the current 120 cardinal electors are present, 80 votes
would be required to elect a new pope.
The ballots and notes (including those made by any cardinal) are then burned
unless another vote is to take place immediately. The ballots are burned by the
scrutineers with the assistance of the secretary of the conclave and the master
of ceremonies, who adds special chemicals to make the smoke white or black.
Since 1903, white smoke has signaled the election of a pope; black smoke
signals an inconclusive vote. The only written record of the voting permitted
is a document prepared by the camerlengo and approved by the three cardinal
assistants, which is prepared at the end of the election and gives the results
of each session. This document is given to the new pope and then placed in the
archives in a sealed envelope that may be opened by no one unless the pope
The conclave lasts until a new pope is elected. The last
conclave to go more than five days was in 1831: it lasted 54 days. In
the 13th 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. Since then 29 conclaves have lasted a month or more.
Often wars or civil disturbances in Rome caused these lengthy interregnums.
Sometimes delays were caused by the cardinals themselves, who enjoyed the power and
financial rewards of running the papacy without a pope. These abuses led to
rules governing an interregnum and requiring the speedy calling of a conclave.
On the other hand, the 2005 conclave was over within 24 hours when Benedict was elected on the fourth ballot.
If no one receives the required two-thirds of the votes in the
balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next
morning. If they are again unsuccessful, they immediately vote again. From then
on, there can be two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each
morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii and revisers are
chosen by lot. If a second vote takes place, the materials from two votes are
burned at the same time. Thus twice a day there will be black smoke from the
stove until a pope is elected.
If after three days the cardinals have still not elected anyone, the voting
sessions can be suspended for a maximum of one day for prayer and discussion among the
electors. During this intermission, a brief spiritual exhortation is given by
the senior cardinal deacon. Then another seven votes take place, followed by a
suspension and an exhortation by the senior cardinal priest. Another seven
votes take place, followed by a suspension and an exhortation by the senior
cardinal bishop. Voting is then resumed for another seven ballots.
If no candidate receives a two-thirds vote after this balloting, the
camerlengo invites the electors to express an opinion about the manner of
proceeding. It is at this point that the dramatic changes occur introduced by John Paul II that allow an absolute majority (more than half) of the
electors to waive the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote. Thus, an
absolute majority of the electors can decide to elect the pope by an absolute
majority. They can also decide to force a choice between the two candidates who
in the preceding ballot received the greatest number of votes. In this second
case also only an absolute majority is required.
This complex process could take from 10 to 12 days and from 30 to 34 votes, depending on how long the voting is suspended and whether there is a vote on the first evening of the conclave. By watching the smoke, outside observers would be able to follow this process and know when the conclave approached the point when it could elect a pope by a majority.
As a consequence, if an absolute
majority of the electors favored a candidate in the first ballot of the first
day of the conclave, in theory they could hold firm for about 10 to 12 days until they could change the rules and elect their candidate. In
the past, the two-thirds requirement was an incentive for the electors to
compromise or move to another candidate. Now a majority does not have to
compromise. It can hold tight, while the minority is pressed to give in
since everyone knows that eventually the majority will prevail.
In such a case, the minority would undoubtedly give in rather than scandalize the faithful and upset the man who inevitably would become pope.
Cardinals who attended the 2005 conclave told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter that they were very conscious of the fact that anyone who came close to a majority would be difficult to stop.
John Paul II did not explain in Universi Dominici Gregis why he made
this change. Perhaps he feared a long conclave. By giving the cardinals
more comfortable quarters, he reduced the discomfort factor that discouraged
long conclaves. Allowing the cardinals to elect a pope with an absolute
majority reduces the likelihood of a conclave going on for months.
In theory, any man can be elected who is willing to be
baptized and ordained a priest and bishop. He does not have to be at the
conclave. The last noncardinal elected was Urban VI (1378). The last cardinal
to be elected pope who was a priest but not a bishop was Gregory XVI (1831).
Callistus III (Alfonso Borgia [or Borja] 1455) was the last person to be elected who was
not a priest. Most likely a cardinal elector will be elected, all of whom today
It should be remembered that prior to the death of John Paul, no one in the media predicted the election of Cardinal Ratzinger. His name surfaced prominently only after John Paul's death. As a result, prophets should be modest in their projections. It is better to speak of the qualities we might see in the next pope, then at least one has a chance of being partially right.
The next pope will probably be a cardinal between 63 and 73 years of age, who speaks Italian and English and reflects Benedict's and John Paul's positions (liberal on social justice and peace, traditional in church teaching and practice, and ecumenical but convinced the church has the truth) but has a very different personality from either John Paul or Benedict.
Age. Prior to the 2005 conclave, I predicted the cardinals would choose someone between 62 and 72 years of age. I was wrong. Of the nine popes who reigned in the 20th century
(beginning with Leo XIII), their average age at the time of election was 65
years, with John XXIII the oldest at 76 and John Paul II the youngest at 58. The average age of the current cardinals is 71.7. Benedict was 78 when elected, older than all but three popes elected by cardinals through the centuries. I would argue it is unlikely the cardinals will choose another old cardinal, especially if Benedict is sick for a long time before he dies or resigns.
Languages. John Paul and Benedict have shown how important it is for the pope to be multilingual. Italian is important because it is the language of the people of Rome, for whom the pope is diocesan bishop. It is also the working language of the Vatican Curia. English is important because it is almost everyone's first or second language. Spanish is valuable because it is the language of so many Catholics. Languages are also important because the cardinals will want to be able to converse with the pope using a language in which they are comfortable.
Positions. It is too early to distinguish how different Benedict will be from John Paul in terms of church policies. My presumption is that they will be little difference, although there are early indications that Benedict may be more conservative than John Paul on interreligious dialogue, ecumenism and liturgy and less activist in justice and peace issues. John Paul and Benedict have appointed all but two of the current cardinals under the age of 80 who will elect Benedict's successor. In appointing cardinals, John Paul II and Benedict have done what anyone would do if they were pope--they have appointed men who agree with them on the major issues that face the church. The next conclave, as a result, will not elect someone who will reject the legacy of John Paul or Benedict. With the next pope, we will see more continuity than change.
As a result, there will be more continuity than change in church doctrine and policy. That means someone who is liberal on political and economic issues but traditional on sexual morality and internal church issues. Someone who supports ecumenical and interreligious dialogue but is convinced the church has the truth. In short, I do not support the "pendulum" theory when it comes to doctrine, but it may be true on personality and governance style (see below).
Personality. While there will be a continuity in policy, there will be a change in personality because there is no one in the college with Benedict's or John Paul's personality and cloning is against church teaching. There is no one with a personality like John Paul's in the college of cardinals, with a background as a Polish actor, intellectual and teacher, who grew up under Nazism and Communism. Nor is there anyone like Benedict with his background as a German theologian and prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Less Centralization? Prior to the 2005 conclave, I predicted that when the cardinals gathered in conclave, they would praise John Paul "of happy memory," but there might be a backlash against the Vatican Curia, whose power has grown during his papacy. Even the most conservative cardinal, I argued, wanted to run his diocese the way he thinks best without interference from Rome. The cardinals may therefore look, I argued, for someone who would support more decentralization of decision making in the church--more power to bishops and bishops' conferences. Granted the election of Cardinal Ratzinger, who played a major role in centralizing power in Rome under John Paul's papacy, I was obviously wrong. On the other hand, there are indications that Benedict wants to downsize the Vatican curia, especially offices (Council for Migrants and Refugees and Council for Interreligious Dialogue) created after Vatican II. What will happen in the next conclave remains to be seen.
A Curial Cardinal? Seventy-five percent of the cardinals are diocesan bishops who are running local churches. In the past, I argued that they would want someone who knows what it is like to be a local bishop, not simply a Vatican bureaucrat. Many cardinals working in the curia, like Cardinal Ratzinger, had diocesan experience before they came to Rome, and some Vatican officials left the curia and became cardinals as archbishops of local churches. These cardinals with both experiences have an advantage. Of the popes elected during the 20th century, only Pius XII had no diocesan experience, and only three (Pius X, John Paul I and John Paul II) never worked in the Vatican. The remaining five had worked in the curia but were leaders of archdioceses when elected pope. On the other hand, Ratzinger's service as a diocesan bishop was quite brief, leading one to conclude that being a curial cardinal may not necessarily be a disadvantage.
Almost zero. First, although a number of the American cardinals are fluent in Spanish, Americans are not great linguists. Second, and most important, the cardinals would worry about how the election of an American would be perceived around the world, especially in the third world and Muslim nations. Many in the third world would suspect that the C.I.A. fixed the election or Wall Street bought it. Muslims would fear that an American pope was going to be a chaplain for the White House. Finally, through the centuries the church has tried to keep the papacy out of the hands of the reigning superpower, whether that was the Holy Roman Empire, France or Spain. When France captured the papacy, it moved it to Avignon in 1309, where it stayed until 1377.
I am not Jimmy the Greek, nor do I gamble. If you want to know what a bookie thinks, see paddypower.com: Who will be the next Pope?
Tip O'Neil was correct: "All politics is local," even in the Catholic Church.
The cardinals from the third world have people who are starving and suffering from the negative impact of globalization of the economy. They will want a pope who will speak out for social justice and forgiveness of third world debt and be willing to stand up to the American superpower. Cardinals from Africa and Asia are confronted by growing Islamic fundamentalism. They will want a pope who understands Islam and will not use inflammatory words like "crusade," as did President George W. Bush. They want a pope who, like John Paul, will support dialogue with Muslims but at the same time stand up for the rights of Catholics.
On the other hand, in Latin America there are few Muslims. The concern there is the evangelicals and Pentecostals who are "stealing their sheep."
In North America and Europe, the cardinals will want a pope who will continue the fight of Benedict against secularism and relativism but also support ecumenical dialogue with Protestants and Jews. Given the growing alienation of educated women, they would also want someone who projects an understanding of women's concerns. The last thing they would want, for example, is a pope who would decide to get rid of altar girls. The American cardinals would also want someone who understands and supports what they are doing to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. Euopeans are concerned about the growing number of Muslims in Europe.
The cardinal dean asks the man, "Do you accept your
canonical election as supreme pontiff?" Since Cardinal Ratzinger was the dean, he was asked by the sub-dean. Rarely does anyone say no. When
offered the papacy at the conclave in Viterbo in 1271, St. Philip Benizi fled and hid
until another candidate was chosen. Likewise St. Charles Borromeo, one of the
few cardinals to be canonized, turned down the papacy. When Cardinal Giovanni
Colombo, the 76-year-old archbishop of Milan, began receiving votes during the
conclave in October 1978, he made it clear that he would refuse the papacy if
elected. If the man says yes, then he becomes pope immediately if he is already
a bishop. The rest is simply ceremony. If he is not already a bishop, he is to be ordained one immediately by the
cardinal dean and becomes pope as soon as this has been done. The dean in
ancient times was the bishop of Ostia, a nearby town.
He is then asked by what name he wants to be called. The first pope to change
his name was John II in 533. His given name, Mercury, was considered
inappropriate since it was the name of a pagan god. Another pope in 983 took
the name John XIV because his given name was Peter. Reverence for the first
pope precluded his becoming Peter II. At the end of the first millennium a
couple of non-Italian popes changed their names to ones that the Romans could
more easily pronounce. The custom of changing one's name became common around
the year 1009. The last pope to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in
The cardinals then approach the new pope and make an act of homage and
obedience. A prayer of thanksgiving is then said, and the senior cardinal
deacon informs the people in St. Peters Square that the election has taken
place and announces the name of the new pope. The pope then may speak to the crowd and
grant his first solemn blessing "urbi et orbi," to the city and the
world. John Paul I and John Paul II prolonged the conclave until the following
morning so that they could meet and dine with the cardinals. After his election, Benedict also invited all the cardinals to dinner at the Domus Sanctae Marthae.
The inauguration mass took place on Sunday, April 24, 2006, five days after the election (in the past this would have involved crowning the pope with the papal tiara, but since John Paul I involves the receiving of the pallium). Later still he took possession of his cathedral, St. John Lateran.
These have not radically changed since the election of Benedict.
- John Allen, The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church, (Doubleday, 2005)
- Paul Collins, God's New Man: The Election of Benedict XVI and the Legacy of John Paul II (Continuum, 2005)
- Andrew Greeley, The Making of the Pope 2005, (Little Brown, 2005)
- George Weigel, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, (HarperCollins, 2005)
- Thomas J. Reese, "Chapter 4: The College of Cardinals,"
Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic
Church (Harvard University Press, 1996).
- John Allen, Jr., Conclave (Random House, 2002)
- Peter and Margaret Hebblethwaite, The Next Pope (HarperSanFrancisco,
1995; revised 2000)
- John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis (1996)
- James Provost, "What If the Pope Became Disabled?" America (September 30,
- CNS pre-conclave stories.
- James-Charles Noonan, Jr., The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church (Viking, 1996)
- The Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church has lists and biographies.
- Betting Odds on Papal Candidates