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Author(s): Michael Walsh
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Michael Walsh is a prominent Catholic author and writer. A columnist on "The Tablet", he is also Librarian of Heythrop College, London. He is the author of numerous books including "The Dictionary of Christian Biography" (Continuum) and "Voice of the Voiceless" by Oscar Romero (translator) (Orbis).
How to spot a pope
They say that a cardinal who enters the conclave pope leaves it a cardinal.
That is about as true as the suggestion that every rotund pope is followed by a
lean one. Well, perhaps a little more true, but a number of cardinals who have
been elected Supreme Pontiff have been obviously papabile or pope-worthy. As
this book has narrated, Pacelli was the obvious successor to Pius XI, Paul VI to
Papa Roncalli, and even Roncalli himself was aware, if perhaps few others were,
that he was the most likely candidate to follow Pius XII. One needs to be able
to read the signs.
That is not at all easy. At the time of writing this chapter the number of
electors is limited to one hundred and twenty, though just after the last
consistory at which cardinals were created there were more than one hundred and
twenty who were under eighty years old and therefore entitled to vote. The
passing of time has reduced the number eligible to, at the present count, about
the same as took part in the two conclaves of 1978, but as far as I know there
is no way of dealing with a situation of more electors than there are allotted
places in the Sistine Chapel. The pope could change the ruling on age, or change
the maximum number of voters, at will, but no one else can – and by definition
there is going to be no pope about to do so when the cardinals are next called
to Rome for a conclave. But whenever that will be, the number of cardinals, and
therefore possible candidates, is much higher than it used to be before the
pontificate of Paul VI. 01.
Next time round, however, they will not be quite so ignorant of each other as
they were at the election of John Paul I. After the reorganization of the Roman
curia at the end of the sixteenth century, cardinals have rarely met except in
conclaves and in the most formal of consistories. Cardinals did not therefore
get to meet each other. John Paul II, however, has occasionally called together
general meetings of the cardinals. And since the end of the Second Vatican
Council there have also been regular synods of bishops, which also bring at
least some of the cardinals together in Rome.
There are over fifty different countries that boast at least one cardinal.
The largest number from a single country is still Italy, but the United States
is running it close. The continent with the largest number is still Europe, but
again, the Americas both North and South look like catching up. Once again there
are regional groupings, technically of bishops but obviously attended by many of
the cardinals. These, too, are a means of getting to know each other. But this
does not mean that conclaves will be swifter. It may even make them longer.
After all, the notion of a conclave was invented in the high Middle Ages to
persuade cardinals who knew one another very well to come to a more rapid
conclusion – and still the process of papal elections could take months, even
years. Since the conclave which elected Pius IX, however, they have been matters
of days, even hours, certainly not of weeks or months. The reason is not far to
seek: family interests (as in the Middle Ages and Renaissance) or the interests
of the great powers (as in more modern times) no longer play a part. The
considerations are now what they were always claimed to be but frequently were
not: the good of the Church – though different groups interpret those
There is just a possibility, however, that conclaves might once more become
long-drawn-out. To explain why, it is necessary to turn to the Apostolic
Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, issued on 22 February 1996 by Pope John
Paul II to replace Paul VI’s Romano Pontificio Eligendo of 1 October 1975,
both determining the conduct of conclaves.
John Paul lays down, as did Paul VI, that only cardinals under eighty can be
the electors of the new pope, though they may take part in the preliminaries to
the conclave. Even if the pope dies during a council or synod of bishops, it
still falls to the cardinals to choose the next one. During the sede vacante the
cardinals – all of them or as many as can meet in Rome – can only take
decisions essential for the day-to-day running of the Church; they may not deal
with anything that in other circumstances would be the prerogative of the pope.
These decisions are to be taken in regular ‘congregations’, held by
preference in the Vatican. Minor decisions may be taken by a small committee,
the composition of which, John Paul II lays down, should change every three
At the death of a pope, all o.ces held under him cease, with the exception of
that of the camerlengo (chamberlain) and the Major Penitentiary. It is the
camerlengo’s task to look after the administration of the Vatican, to seal the
papal apartments, destroy the late pope’s seal (‘the Fisherman’s Ring’)
and to look after the funeral arrangements. If the pope has died outside Rome
his body is to be brought back to St Peter’s for the funeral mass nine days
after his death – it is, however, not laid down that burial must take place in
The election begins fifteen days after the pope’s death, though the period
may be extended to twenty days. A cardinal arriving late will be admitted, as
long as the election has not taken place. In a major change to previous
provisions, John Paul says that the electors may live in the Hostel of St
Martha, recently built inside the Vatican City. The election has to take place
within the Vatican City, not, as in the Middle Ages when cardinals accompanied
popes on their travels, wherever the pope dies. Careful instructions are laid
down for the secrecy of the conclave and especial mention is made of keeping
people away while the cardinals are going between the Hostel and the Sistine
Chapel, where the voting takes place. Apart from the cardinals a small number of
other people are allowed in – priests to hear confessions, nuns to look after
the sacristy, masters of ceremonies for liturgical celebrations and the
secretary of the college of cardinals. Each cardinal is allowed one cleric as an
assistant, the ‘conclavist’. All are required to take an oath of secrecy,
and the security of the Sistine Chapel is to be checked. The cardinals then
themselves take an oath of secrecy, and at this point everyone not among those
permitted to remain has to leave.
Traditionally there have been three methods of electing a pope: acclamation,
‘compromise’ (the establishment of a committee for the purpose) and ‘scrutiny’
or ballot. In Universi Dominici Gregis John Paul II abolishes all but the last
and returns to the two-thirds majority, unless the number of electors is not
divisible by three, in which case it is two-thirds plus one. The ballot papers
have on them ‘Eligo in Summum Pontificem’, ‘I elect as Supreme Pontiff’,
and the cardinal adds the name, folds the ballot slip so that it cannot be seen,
puts it in a receptacle – a chalice – on the altar and returns to his place.
The scrutineers, who have been chosen by lot, shake up the receptacle, then
proceed to the counting of votes. These ballots are then burned, along with any
notes that the cardinals may have made in the course of the session. A record of
the total votes is, however, kept and put in a special archive, to be opened
only with the permission of the pope. This record would not contain information
about who voted for whom.
Universi Dominici Gregis makes no mention of burning straw with the
ballot papers to produce black smoke, indicating that the ballot has been
unsuccessful. One can only presume that the practice will continue and that
white smoke, without the straw, will still indicate the choice of a new pope. As
a signal to the outside world, however, the burning of the ballot papers has
been notoriously unreliable. Universi Dominici Gregis lays down that two votes
should be taken in each session, two sessions a day, with a break of a maximum
of a day if no result has been arrived at after three days. Voting is then
resumed for seven more ballots, another pause, seven more ballots, a pause and
exhortation from the senior cardinal present, and then seven more ballots. At
this point, however, there occurs a major innovation. Pope John Paul then
prescribes that, if the electors so wish, they can proceed to voting by an
absolute, rather than a two-thirds, majority. They can do so in one of two ways:
either they can continue voting until one candidate had an absolute majority
over all others, or they can vote only on the two names which got the highest
number of votes in the previous ballot.
This provision could have interesting consequences. The requirement that a
two-thirds majority must be achieved means that a compromise candidate has to be
introduced if there is a more or less even split of the votes between two
others. If, however, after some ten days there is no sign of a compromise and a
majority vote is agreed to, then a different dynamic is introduced. Take, for
example, the election of John Paul II. After the second ballot Cardinal Benelli
was well in the lead, with more than four times the number of votes as Cardinal
Wojtyla. At that point his supporters and those of the next ranking candidate,
the moderate conservative Cardinal Felici, might have sat tight and waited for a
majority vote on the two of them. Had that happened then Benelli would probably
have been elected rather than Wojtyla. It would have been a very different
pontificate – though much shorter: Benelli died almost exactly four years
The Constitution of John Paul II continues with warnings against simony in
papal elections, conspiring for a new pope in the lifetime of the incumbent, any
form of ‘capitulation’, or any attempt to introduce a veto. It ends with
instruction to the one elected to accept the o.ce. It also envisages the
possibility, though almost as an afterthought, that the person elected may not
be present. If this is the case, particularly if the person so elected is not
even a bishop, the cardinals wait to do homage until he is ordained bishop, then
all proceeds as normal, including taking possession of the Lateran basilica, the
pope’s cathedral in his real o.ce as Bishop of Rome.
But what of the person to be chosen by this process? Between the death of a
pope and the election of his successor such cardinals as are in Rome meet in
formal ‘congregations’ to conduct necessary business, including arranging
the funeral and organizing the conclave. They also choose two priests to address
them, one more or less immediately, one inside the Sistine Chapel at the last
minute before the conclave opens. They are to speak about the state of the
Church and what sort of person is needed. The cardinals will have decided on the
latter long before. They do not talk about it in the congregations but on the
phone, over dinners in the colleges in which they are lodging or more
comfortably in restaurants. They choose who they want and discuss tactics to be
employed both before the conclave opens and afterwards.
There are some criteria, however, which are almost certain to come into play.
As Benelli noted (cf. above, p. 154), most cardinals are also diocesan bishops
and would prefer someone – like Wojtyla – who understands their problems.
But they would not be averse, one can presume, to someone who had served both in
a diocese and in the curia; administrative experience at both levels would
certainly be an advantage.
There is an argument about John Paul II that, as he has chosen almost all the
electors and they are in his image, they will therefore tend to vote for someone
like him. I doubt that, precisely because they are diocesan bishops. The one
thing above all others which causes resentment among prelates world-wide is the
Vatican’s effort to draw back to itself responsibility for matters which, in
the aftermath of Vatican II, people thought were to be more broadly distributed.
Diocesan bishops have lost authority to the centre. They will not wish that
policy to continue. The theory that they will appoint someone in that mould
seems inherently unlikely. It is moreover a theory, as the devout might point
out, that omits the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is also one which history
does not particularly support. To take one example, Pope Pius XII had appointed
all but eleven of the fifty-one cardinals who elected his successor – but
anyone less like the severe and ascetic Pius than the rotund, and now Blessed,
Pope John XXIII would be hard to imagine.
There are other considerations. In his excellent book Inside the Vatican Tom
Reese, then of Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Centre but later
editor of the US Jesuits’ weekly America, proposed a number of criteria which
cardinal electors are likely to have in mind when selecting the next pope. Age
is a factor, so is experience. Fr Reese suggests that a pope has to have media
savvy and a grasp of languages (at least Italian, Spanish, English and French).
Nationality is also an issue, he suggests, because it would be problematic to
have someone from a nation which plays a major role in international affairs.
This criterion tends to favour Italians, because in modern times their country
has not played a particularly large role in world politics. Even so, the failure
of Pius XI openly to condemn the Italian dictator Mussolini’s invasion of
Ethiopia in 1935, despite world-wide protests, shows that not even an Italian
pope can always be neutral.
Age is important not so much in itself but in contrast to what has gone
before. After a long pontificate cardinals like to choose someone whose period
of o.ce is expected to be on the short side. Thus the conclave which followed
the almost twenty-year pontificate of Pius XII elected John XXIII, the oldest
pope this century. Even Leo XIII’s rule of twenty-five years, after the
thirty-two years of Pius IX (the longest in history), is no real exception. Leo
was sixty-eight on his election and sickly; the cardinals did not expect him to
survive for another quarter of a century. The odds are that, after the two
decades and more of John Paul II, the cardinal electors will be looking for the
next papacy to be distinctly shorter.
In the second election of 1978 the cardinals chose a particularly healthy
candidate: Wojtylawas known for his canoeing, walking and skiing. But they also
chose him because, as we have seen (cf. above, p. 156), he was not Italian.
There has been talk of a cardinal from a third-world country, from South America
or Africa for example. But there is an ecclesiological question (i.e. an issue
arising from the structure of the Church – the ‘ecclesia’ – itself)
involved here. The Pope, as was said right at the beginning, is Bishop of Rome;
that is his claim to whatever status he may have within the wider Catholic
Church. Within the Church he is the Primate, but he is one bishop among very
many others who work as a college for the good of the Church. That was one of
the fundamental doctrines of the Second Vatican Council. The further a pope’s
ethnic origins are from the city of Rome, the more remote he appears from the
bishopric of Rome. He becomes more of a president than a bishop among bishops,
primus inter pares, first among equals. The suggestion, often mooted, that the
pope should be elected by a council or by a synod of bishops, also tends to make
him more presidential. In Universi Dominici Gregis John Paul II expressly ruled
out such ideas, stressing that (the legal fiction by which) cardinals are
priests of Rome closely links them with the clergy of the city upon whom, as
this book has recorded, the burden of electing the city’s bishop especially
It has been suggested above that the new rules for majority voting introduced
by John Paul II may possibly make for a longer election. There is another
consideration. Hitherto the cardinal electors have, at least since the election
of 1878, lived in uncomfortable surroundings adjacent to the Sistine Chapel
where the voting takes place. After the two elections of 1978 the lanky Cardinal
Hume of Westminster was heard to complain of the shortness of the beds. Now,
however, the cardinals are to reside in the Hostel of St Martha, within the
Vatican City but nonetheless a short distance away from the Chapel. The hostel
has comfortable and spacious accommodation for one hundred and thirty-one
electors. They will certainly be less pressured by the discomfort of their
But that element of discomfort, intended to speed up papal elections, was the
reason why conclaves were invented in the first place.