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The Conclave

A Secret (and Sometimes Bloody) History of Papal Elections

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ISBN-13: 9781853114977
Published: 01/04/2003
Product description
The vendettas, bribery, ecclesiastical feuds, political intrigue and bloodshed that are part of the story of how popes have been chosen down the centuries make for a colourful account of the Conclave, the gathering of cardinals that follow the death of a pope to elect his successor. Given the influence at stake, it is perhaps little wonder that the process by which popes are chosen has such an eventful and dramatic history. Amid the power struggles, there emerges a serious picture of the way that both the papacy and Vatican politics have developed, and how a pattern of chossing often surprised candidates for the job can be detected. What will influence the choice of the next Conclave?
Author Information

Michael Walsh

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).

Extended Information

Afterword

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 interests differently.

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 days.

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 St Peter’s.

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 later.

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 fell.

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 quarters.

But that element of discomfort, intended to speed up papal elections, was the reason why conclaves were invented in the first place.

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