The Next Conclave
J. Michael Miller
Pageantry, suspense, and fascination with moral authority give
papal elections irresistible media appeal. Between the death of
one pope and the election of his successor the eyes of the world
are riveted on the Vatican. But without television spots,
rancorous debates, and savage campaigning, how will the next pope
be chosen? Neither Scripture nor the ancient Tradition specifies
how the Bishop of Rome is to be elected.
Through the centuries, the process has varied greatly. Early popes
probably were selected by the incumbent handpicking his successor.
This practice, however, did not last long. Soon enough papal
elections became well-regulated, if sometimes raucous, affairs.
Following the lead of six of his predecessors in this century,
Pope John Paul II recently decided to leave his own stamp on the
next papal election. On February 22, 1996, he promulgated "On the
Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman
Pontiff," (UDG). This apostolic
constitution minutely describes the procedures for electing the
264th Successor of Peter.
Tried and True
Like the steward who brings from his storehouse the old and the
new, the Holy Father both confirms and modifies previous electoral
legislation. Most of UDG restates Paul VI's rules of 1975 set out
in (RPE). John Paul didn't intend, he
says, "to depart in substance from the wise and venerable
tradition already established."
In outward appearance, the next papal election will look very much
like the two of 1978.
The pope himself draws attention to three traditional norms that
he reaffirms with only minor changes: those dealing with the
composition and seclusion of the electors and with the secrecy of
the procedure. The near-millennial custom that the electoral body
"is composed solely of the cardinals of Holy Roman Church" remains
in place. While Paul VI was preparing RPE, he seriously considered
the possibility that bishops from around the world should vote in
papal elections. Ultimately, however, he declined to reverse the
nine hundred-year-old convention. Despite continuing pressure to
change, John Paul has confirmed his predecessor's ruling.
Solid theological and ecumenical reasons argue in favor of this
practice. First, since the pope is not the bishops'
representative, his election should avoid creating any such
impression. Just as the other apostles did not choose Peter as
their head, similarly the college of bishops does not elect the
pope. Second, ecumenical sensitivity supports the tradition.
Insofar as the Orthodox are willing even to discuss the papal
ministry, they need assurance that it is the Bishop of Rome who
carries out this office. How the pope is elected should mirror
this link to the See of Saints Peter and Paul.
It is entirely in keeping with collegiality and ecumenism to have
representatives of the Roman Church-the cardinals- choose their
own bishop. By designating them as the papal electors, John Paul
makes clear that the pastor of the universal Church is not elected
directly by the college of bishops over which he presides.
Instead, the local Church of Rome selects its bishop who is, ipso
facto, head of the episcopal college and visible head of the
UDG emphasizes that the cardinals are the appropriate group to
elect the Bishop of Rome. Except for patriarchs of Eastern
Catholic churches (there is one at present), the other cardinals
are all specifically bound to the Church at Rome. Six of them are
bishops of the dioceses surrounding the city. The rest are
incorporated into the local clergy by being given a "titular"
church, a parish in Rome where they serve as a kind of honorary
pastor. This Roman connection preserves the tradition of the early
Church that local clergy, with the help of nearby bishops, chose
At the same time, the international character of the college of
cardinals guarantees that representatives from churches around the
world take part in electing the pope. Today the cardinals come
from more than fifty countries, thereby providing the diversity
that gives papal elections a truly catholic dimension.
Some observers expected-and even hoped-that John Paul II would
revoke two of Paul VI's more controversial rulings in RPE. Pope
Paul limited the number of electors to 120, and he excluded
cardinals over eighty years old from voting. But, to the surprise
of many, John Paul seconded his predecessor's rule.
The Holy Father justifies his decision for imposing an age-limit
on eligible electors. Cardinals over eighty, he writes, should not
have "the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one
who will have to lead Christ's flock in ways adapted to the needs
of the times." The last phrase is telling. Is there a hint that
older cardinals fail to appreciate "the needs of the times"? In
any event, the pope encourages the octogenarians to take full part
in all the pre-election meetings of the cardinals and to lead
public prayer that the Spirit will enlighten the electors.
UDG introduces a slight precision for determining the date when a
cardinal is to be excluded because of his age. Under Paul VI, a
man could not vote if he reached his eightieth birth day before
the conclave itself began-a date fixed by the college of
cardinals. The new legislation bans those "who have reached their
eightieth birthday before the day of the Roman pontiff's death or
the day when the Apostolic See becomes vacant."
Also ratified, but with some modifications, is the rule of
secluding the cardinals for the course of the election. This
practice goes back to the Middle Ages, when the college sometimes
tarried many months before electing a new pope. The most drawn-out
election ever dragged on for nearly three years (1268-71). Fed up
with the cardinals" wrangling, a mob finally tore the roof off the
palace where they were voting. The throng sealed in the eighteen
electors, forcing them to end the stalemate.
These unruly events led to the adoption of a new procedure that
would guarantee speedy results-the conclave. In 1274 the Second
Council of Lyons legislated that the electors should be locked up
"with a key" () until they settled upon a candidate. A
further measure, later rescinded, also encouraged alacrity. If no
one was elected after three days, then the cardinals' diet was
restricted to one dish at noon and night. And after five days on
one dish, they were to be given only bread, wine, and water until
they elected a pope.
Isolation from the world also served the Church's desire to free
the election from secular intrusions. For centuries, emperors,
kings, influential leaders, and Roman families meddled in papal
elections, much to the ire of Church officials.
John Paul II judges that the conclave still favors "the orderly,
expeditious and proper functioning of the election itself." Thus
he confirms its essential structure. As the place of voting the
Holy Father designates the Sistine Chapel. For more than four
centuries most conclaves have been held there, but now it is
legislated for the first time.
Beneath Michelangelo's fresco of creation and facing his solemn
last judgment, the pope believes that the electors "can more
readily dispose themselves to accept the interior movements of the
Holy Spirit." In a slightly admonitory tone, he also adds that the
chapel is "conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in
whose sight each person will one day be judged."
The conclave's retreat like atmosphere is reinforced by norms that
curtail any contact with the outside world. No letters or phone
calls, no e-mail or faxes, no newspapers or television are allowed
within the area of Vatican City designated for the election.
Legislation safeguarding the absolute secrecy of the election also
has been retained, though the rules have been simplified "to avoid
confusion, doubts and even eventual problems of conscience."
John Paul affirms the need to keep the strictest secrecy regarding
everything that directly or indirectly touches upon the election
process. All those admitted to the conclave, including the support
staff who attend to the cardinals' needs, solemnly promise
"absolute and perpetual secrecy." Even notes taken during the
balloting must be surrendered and burned. The electors are not to
relate anything about the voting even after the election of the
new pope, unless he gives explicit permission.
Following RPE, UDG likewise metes out excommunications for a
variety of offenses: violation of the oath of secrecy, simony
(though this does not invalidate the election), yielding to
pressure by secular authorities to exercise the so-called veto
(the right once claimed by certain Catholic sovereigns to
blackball candidates), and making pre-election pacts with other
Among the myriad precise norms that have grown up to protect the
integrity of the papal election, I have some favorites: the
instructions about disguising one's handwriting when voting and
how to fold the ballot, the procedures for "de-bugging" the
Sistine Chapel, and the piercing and threading of the ballots with
a needle to make counting them easier.
While UDG endorses most of Paul VI's legislation with only minimal
variations, it also contains a few substantive modifications. John
Paul himself draws attention to two of these new norms: the
extending of the conclave area in order to provide better lodging
for the cardinals and the abolition of two time-honored electoral
Providing suitable accommodation for the electors has been a
perennial concern of electoral legislation.
In recent years the housing hardships have become especially
apparent. The August conclave of 1978, with 111 cardinals jammed
into stifling quarters, many of which lacked even running water,
led to any number of wry comments. Despite the elegance of the
Apostolic Palace, sleeping in stuffy converted offices and
reception rooms undoubtedly hampers the desired spirit of prayer
With eminent practical wisdom, John Paul has decreed that the
cardinal electors should be simply but adequately housed.
Within Vatican City State, the Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha's
Residence) has been opened as living quarters for clerics who work
in the Curia or are visiting Rome. With room for 130 guests, it is
the ideal place for lodging the cardinal electors. Under strict
surveillance to protect their total privacy, the cardinals will be
transported from the residence to the voting sessions in the
Sistine Chapel. UDG thus extends the "conclave" area beyond the
Apostolic Palace to include the cardinal's lodgings at St.
The new constitution's most significant change, however, is the
elimination of two ancient methods of electing the pope: by
acclamation and by compromise.
Until the current legislation, a remnant of ancient tradition and,
at least once, of recorded practice, was election by acclamation
or inspiration. The Church historian Eusebius tells the story,
perhaps legendary, of the election of A.D. 236:
When the brethren had all assembled with the intention of electing
a successor to the bishopric, a large number of eminent and
distinguished men were in the thoughts of most. Fabian, who was
present, came into no one's mind. But suddenly out of the blue a
dove fluttered down and perched on his head (the story goes on),
plainly following the example of the descent upon the Savior of
the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
Even Paul VI, in deference to this long-standing tradition, made
provision for election "as if by inspiration." But John Paul has
legislated that acclamation is "no longer an apt means of
interpreting the thought of an electoral college so great in
number and so diverse in origin." I, for one, regret doing away
with this procedure. Though admittedly of little practical import
in carrying out an election, the possibility of a
charismatic intervention served to highlight how the pope's
election is a profoundly religious event. In any case, the
cardinals are urged to pray that their decision will conform to
the will of the Holy Spirit.
A second centuries-old method, that of delegation or compromise,
also has been abolished. According to previous legislation, this
procedure could be used when prolonged balloting failed to result
in election. An uneven number of cardinals, from nine to fifteen,
was to be chosen and meticulously instructed on how to choose the
pope, whom all the electors had agreed to accept as validly
John Paul, however, gives two reasons for abrogating election by
delegation. First, he notes the complexity of the procedure,
"evident from the unwieldy accumulation of rules issued in the
past." Second, the Holy Father argues from his own philosophical
convictions, which place a premium on individual accountability.
"By its very nature," he writes, "[delegation] tends to lessen the
responsibility of the individual electors who, in this case, would
not be required to express their choice personally."
The next pope therefore will be elected by secret ballot.
According to John Paul, this form offers the greatest guarantee of
effective participation by all the electors, assuring "clarity,
straightforwardness, simplicity, openness."
UDG introduces other innovations without comment. One subtle
change touches the delicate question of papal resignation.
Traditionally, the pope has held the Petrine ministry until his
death. Even so, as an office freely accepted, it can be freely
Although the historical record is obscure, the first pope to have
abdicated was probably Pontian (230-235), who was deported during
a persecution. A replacement was chosen but, ironically, Pontian
outlived his successor.
The most famous pope to have resigned was St. Celestine V, in
1294. Overwhelmed by the papacy's demands after just five months
in office, Celestine returned to the hermetical life that he had
led before his election. His gesture established the legitimacy of
papal resignation, a possibility received into the subsequent
RPE mentioned papal resignation only once. Paul VI decreed that
his constitution's norms were also to be observed "if the
Apostolic See should become vacant as a result of the resignation
of the supreme pontiff." Despite this provision, the language in
the rest of the document assumes that a papal election will be
held only if the pope has died.
This is not so in UDG. At several points it affirms that the Roman
See could become vacant for a reason other than death. Where Paul
VI wrote "after the pope's death," John Paul II writes "when the
Apostolic See becomes vacant." This stylistic tidying up makes UDG
consistent with the current Latin and Eastern codes of canon law,
both of which refer to possible papal resignation.
While neither RPE nor UDG develops a theology of the papacy, a
slightly different emphasis can be noticed- prompted, I would
suggest, by ecumenical openness to the East. At the outset of his
document Paul VI described the pope as the "vicar of Christ on
earth, supreme pastor and visible head of the universal Church."
John Paul, on the other hand, begins by referring to the "bishop
of the Church of Rome" and Peter's martyrdom there. Later the Holy
Father mentions the one "called to assume the Petrine succession
in the Roman See." This care to emphasize that the cardinals are
electing the Bishop of Rome is likewise reflected, as we have
seen, in the reasons given to justify why those with a special
link to the city are the pope's electors.
UDG also adds a significant precision in the oath taken by the
cardinals before the election begins. They promise that whoever is
chosen (assuming one of their number) "will commit himself
faithfully to carrying out the of pastor of the
Legislative document though it is, UDG nonetheless leaves the way
open for the dialogue on the Petrine ministry that John Paul has
called for in his recent encyclical (1995).
The number of votes needed for a valid election has varied through
the centuries. At the Third Lateran Council (1179), the Council
fathers, anxious "to avoid dissension in the choice of a sovereign
pontiff," decreed that the man elected needed a two-thirds
majority of the votes cast. This provision was designed to cut
down the chance of schism following a heated election. The Council
fathers hoped that by reducing the losing faction to a small
minority it would be dissuaded from choosing an anti-pope. While
some later popes, like Pius XII and Paul VI, added "plus one" to
the requirement for a two-thirds majority, John Paul has returned
to the older tradition.
A last noteworthy innovation, also typically Wojtylan, is the
proviso that before the cardinals vote, they are to be given two
talks "on the problems facing the Church at the time and on the
need for careful discernment in choosing the new pope." This task
falls to two clerics known for their sound doctrine, wisdom, and
At every turn in UDG the pope wants to guarantee that the election
of his successor is as free as possible from petty politics,
nationalist interests, and worldly ambition.
John Paul's legislation on electing his successor meets the two
objectives he set for his new rules. It preserves "the wise and
venerable tradition" of many norms accumulated in the course of
more than 250 papal elections, laws that safeguard the freedom and
privacy of the electors. At the same time, the next conclave will
be conducted in the spirit of recollection and prayer that the
pope believes to be crucial in choosing his successor. He invites
all the faithful to offer prayers for the electors "that a speedy,
harmonious and fruitful election may take place, as the salvation
of souls and the good of the whole People of God demand."
REV. J. MICHAEL MILLER, C.S.B., writes from Rome.
This article was taken from the November 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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