The Next Conclave

Author: J. Michael Miller

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 Church.

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 their pastor.

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.

Locked Up

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."

Securing Secrecy

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 electors.

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 procedures.

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 and recollection.

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. Martha's.

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 elected.

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 surrendered.

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 canonical tradition.

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 universal Church."

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 moral authority.

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" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: