The Coming Conclave: What to expect from the next papal election

The Coming Conclave: What to expect from the next papal election

By Catholic World Report Staff

Note: This article was originally published in November 2003. While some of it is dated, we are republishing it here because it is a very helpful guide to the coming conclave of cardinals and the selection of the next pope.

On October 16, 1978, a charismatic Polish prelate named Karol Wojtyla was introduced to the world as Pope John Paul II, the 264th successor of St. Peter. Most of the people living in the world today had not yet been born.

Having passed the 25th anniversary of his papal election, Pope John Paul has now outlived many of the prelates who have been touted as his potential successors, and even many of the journalists who have speculated about his demise. For years the Italian media have buzzed with rumors that the Pope’s death is imminent, and for years John Paul II has confounded those predictions.

Nevertheless, this historic papacy must come to an end someday. Over the past year, the Pope’s frequent public displays of frailty have reminded the Catholic world that, despite his remarkable stamina, the end will inevitably come soon. When the Holy Father does die, what can the world expect?

An established pattern

Although the world has seen enormous changes since "the year of the three Popes," the process by which a new Roman Pontiff is selected will be familiar to anyone who can remember past conclaves. In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul altered only the details of an established pattern.

For the purposes of the Holy See, the death of a Pope is certified not by a medical doctor, but by the camerlengo ("chamberlain"), the prelate who will be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Vatican during the interregnum. The camerlengo–at the moment, Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, the prefect of the Congregation for Religious Life–is required to ascertain the Pope’s death in the presence of ecclesiastical witnesses. Tradition requires him to call out the Pope’s name three times. When the Pope does not respond, the camerlengo announces, "The Pope is dead." At that point, the apostolic see is officially vacant.

Immediately, the heads of most offices within the Roman Curia lose their authority. While bishops remain as the heads of their dioceses, the prelates who work in the Vatican dicasteries serve at the will of the Pontiff, and draw their authority from him. So all of the cardinals who work as prefects of Vatican congregations and presidents of pontifical councils lose their mandate when the Pope dies. The day-to-day functions of those offices are supervised by the secretaries of those congregations and councils, who ordinarily rank as bishops, but not cardinals. In practice, however, all of the most important work of the Vatican comes to a stop; decisions are postponed until the new Pope takes office.

The one cardinal at the Vatican who retains clear duties is the camerlengo, who will be the focal point of activity until the beginning of the conclave. Having declared the Pope’s death, the camerlengo then tackles a series of important practical tasks. First he is required to destroy the papal ring–the famous Fisherman’s ring–in a time-honored ceremony that was established to prevent imposters from counterfeiting the papal seal on official documents. He announces the Pope’s death to the dean of the College of Cardinals, who in turn makes the formal announcement to the world (although in practice the media will have spread the news across the globe before that formal announcement). Then, having made provisions for the removal of the deceased Pontiff’s personal effects, he seals off the papal apartment in the apostolic palace. Finally, he contacts all the members of the College of Cardinals, summoning them to the conclave.

As cardinals from abroad arrive in Rome, they join the cardinals already in residence in a daily meeting known as the "general congregation." All of the world’s cardinals, including those who are over the age of 80 and thus ineligible to participate in a conclave, join in the work of the general congregation. This body, working by simple majority vote, directs the affairs of the Catholic Church during the interregnum. Once again, virtually all major policy decisions are postponed; the general congregation devotes its attention primarily to the practical details of planning the funeral for the deceased Pope, and making arrangements for the conclave.

Universi Dominici Gregis
stipulates that the conclave should begin between 15 and 20 days after the death of the Pontiff. Unless some cardinals have unexpected difficulty reaching Rome, the next conclave will probably start promptly on the 15th day.

Shrouded in secrecy

The events leading up to a conclave –particularly the funeral for the deceased Pope–are conducted in the full glare of the media spotlight. But the conclave itself is shrouded in secrecy. The cardinals will conduct the papal election behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel. The first order of business, as dictated by tradition and reinforced by Universi Dominici Gregis, is for each cardinal to swear a solemn oath that he will never divulge the proceedings of the conclave, unless he is explicitly freed from this oath by the Pope who is elected. Even the few outsiders who assist the cardinals–the handful of cooks, doctors, and technicians allowed into the conclave to care for the prelates’ needs–are sworn to "absolute and perpetual secrecy" about whatever they might see or hear. The ecclesiastical penalties for violating these oaths are severe, including possible excommunication.

Because of this absolute rule of secrecy, the Catholic world knows very little about what happens inside a conclave. The purported "inside" reports that have been circulated about past papal elections–and will no doubt circulate once again when the next conclave begins–should be treated with extreme skepticism. Obviously they have come either from someone who was not a participant, and is engaged in pure speculation; or someone who has already shown himself untrustworthy, by violating his solemn oath.

We do know that the conclave begins after a Mass in St. Peter’s basilica, concelebrated by all the cardinals. After Mass, the cardinal-electors form a procession, and enter the Sistine Chapel. There, each prelate takes his oath to abide by the rules of the papal election, which bar politicking and require each cardinal to base his vote solely on what he believes is best for the Catholic Church. Then the assembled cardinals hear an exhortation from a priest who is chosen by the general congregation, on the basis of his "sound doctrine, wisdom, and moral authority," who encourages them to the task at hand. Then the doors are sealed, and the cardinals are left by themselves until the new Pope is selected.

The actual voting is a complicated process, heavily laden with Roman tradition. Each cardinal writes the name of a candidate on a prepared slip of paper, folds it, and drops it into a large chalice at the front of the Sistine Chapel. These ballots are then meticulously counted by a panel of three cardinals who have been chosen by the conclave for that task. If the vote is inconclusive, the ballots are collected–together with all notes the individual cardinals have been keeping –and burned together with some dark dye to produce the black smoke that tells outsiders the conclave has not finished its work.

Under the rules of the conclave, there is only one such ballot on the first day. On each following day, there are two ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon, until one candidate receives the required two-thirds majority. In Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul directed that after three days, if the voting has not produced a new Pope, the balloting should be interrupted for a morning of prayer and reflection, with one cardinal leading the others in a meditation on their responsibilities. If the deadlock continued for another three days, there would be another pause, and the process would be repeated. Finally, if twelve days passed without the election of a new Pontiff, the conclave could decide matters by a simple majority vote.

These changes in the rules, which had previously been absolute in requiring a two-thirds majority, were clearly designed by John Paul II to guard against the possibility of a stalled conclave. But actually, since the start of the 20th century, no papal election has taken longer than five days. Pope Paul VI was elected on the third day of the conclave; John Paul I, the second day; John Paul II, the third day.

So it is logical to expect that within a few days after the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel, one cardinal will be chosen. (Theoretically, the conclave could select a man who is not a cardinal; in practice, that has not happened since the election of Urban VI in 1378.) The dean of the College of Cardinals–currently Joseph Ratzinger–then approaches the winning candidate to ask whether he will accept the papal office. If he replies affirmatively, the conclave is over. White smoke appears above the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter has a new successor.

Since the words "I accept" bring the conclave to an end, and the rules of secrecy are lifted, we have an accurate account of the reactions from the last two men elected to the papacy. An emotional Pope John Paul I said to the cardinals who elected him, "May God forgive you for what you have done!" A more composed John Paul II said that he accepted "with obedience in faith to Christ my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties."
Why so secret?

The first conclave, in which the cardinals were locked into a room (the word "conclave" derives from the Latin words for "with a key") occurred in 1241, when Italian noblemen grew impatient with the cardinals who had been deliberating for more than two months. Later in that same century, another papal election lasted a record three years, prompting frustrated Catholic laymen to remove the roof of the cardinals’ residence, and eventually cut off their food supply, to prod them toward a decision.

In more recent years, the main purpose of the conclave, and the secrecy that goes with it, has been to preserve the cardinals, and thus the Church, from outside pressures. Since their deliberations are secret, the cardinals cannot be rewarded or punished by any outside agency; they can vote as their consciences dictate, without fearing the consequences. In the oath with which they begin their proceedings, the cardinal-electors swear that they will neither offer nor accept any inducements in exchange for votes. They are forbidden to put any conditions on their votes, such as a requirement that the new Pope must enact a certain policy or appoint a particular official. Universi Dominici Gregis even specifies that if any such conditions are imposed, despite the prohibition, they must be considered null and void after the election. The new rules also prohibit any cardinal from acting as an agent for a secular government, and explicitly reject the claim of certain governments to exercise veto power over papal candidates–a claim invoked by an Austrian emperor as late as 1903.

Once they enter the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals can only consult with each other. Aside from the few cooks who prepare their meals, and doctors ready to attend to any prelates who are ill, they are cut off from contact with the outside world. No mail, newspapers, or other reading material can enter the Chapel, or the Casa St. Martha where the cardinals sleep at night. Radios and televisions are disconnected. The area is carefully swept before the conclave, to ensure that there are no electronic eavesdropping devices. The cardinals’ isolation is as complete as scrupulous organizers can manage.

Once the conclave begins, therefore, the thousands of reporters who are expected to gather in Rome for the papal election will be virtually powerless to find new stories. The world’s most powerful news syndicates will be reduced to doing what ordinary Catholics have done for generations: standing in St. Peter’s Square, waiting to see white smoke.

However, if reporters are inclined toward guessing what the conclave might be doing (and the Vatican-watchers of the Italian press are notorious in that regard), they will have plenty of material for their discussions. From the moment of the Pope’s death until the doors close on the Sistine Chapel, every statement by an influential cardinal or other Vatican official will be carefully dissected. Even after the conclave begins, those cardinals who are over the age of 80, and thus ineligible to participate, may be willing to tell journalists about earlier meetings with their colleagues, lending their own perspectives on the events that could be developing behind the closed doors.

Ambitious reporters will pay especially careful attention to the eulogy delivered at the funeral Mass for the deceased Pope. The terms in which the late Pontiff is praised might point toward the qualities that the homilist would like to see displayed in the next Pope. Virtually every cardinal, as he arrives in Rome, will be questioned by the media about his vision for the future of the papacy. The results of those interviews will appear in print and on the airwaves, and–at least until the conclave begins–the other cardinals will see them. Cardinals will also visit each other socially in the days before the conclave, and although their discussions theoretically should not focus on the papal election, inevitably they will talk about the challenges that face the Church. By the time they actually enter the conclave, the cardinal-electors will have developed a clear sense of what they can expect. The best reporters in Rome will also have refined their own lists of the likely papabili, or candidates for the papacy.

New circumstances

Of the many changes that have occurred since 1978, the one most likely to affect the process of the next papal election is the explosive growth in communications technology. Thousands of journalists will be in Rome, buttonholing prelates and asking for their insights. Enterprising reporters might even stake out Rome’s more popular restaurants, taking note of the cardinals’ choice of dining companions. Working with Internet connections and satellite links, reporters will be able to question one cardinal, consult with an expert analyst about his answer, and get a reaction from another cardinal, all in the space of a few hours. The speed of the "news cycle," exponentially faster today than it was in 1978, will allow the collection of millions of bits of information over a period of 15 days or more. Whether journalists can assemble all those pieces of information into a single meaningful mosaic is another question, naturally.

The ubiquitous presence of the mass media will also prompt various special-interest groups to visit Rome, hoping to influence the cardinals’ decision–or at least to gain their bit of news coverage. We can safely assume that representatives from groups like We Are Church, the Women’s Ordination Conference, Voice of the Faithful, Dignity, and even Catholics for a Free Choice will circulate around the Vatican, looking for cameras. Their presence will be a reminder of the reason why, when the formal deliberations begin, the cardinals will be sequestered inside the Sistine Chapel.

Another important new development will be the need for tighter security. In his book Conclave, John Allen reports that 7,000 security officials were on duty in Rome for the funeral of Pope Paul VI. That event was before September 11, 2001–before the Western world became acutely conscious that terrorists can strike at any moment. When John Paul II dies, and world leaders assemble at the Vatican for his funeral, a small army of security experts will be required. Officials at the Vatican are understandably reluctant to discuss the details of security arrangements, but St. Peter’s Square is now routinely cleared and searched by bomb-sniffing dogs, and guests are asked to pass through metal detectors, before any important public celebration. The papal funeral will doubtless call for more stringent methods: snipers on the roof of the apostolic palace, helicopters circling the Vatican grounds, and more.

A third important change since the conclaves of 1978 is the opening of the Casa St. Martha, a guesthouse inside the Vatican grounds where the cardinals will be lodged during the conclave. The facilities are not luxurious (and many "princes of the Church" have grown accustomed to luxury), but they are an enormous improvement over the old arrangement, in which cardinals were assigned cots, set up in rows of tiny cubicles, along the corridors of the apostolic palace. The 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul I took place during a sweltering August heat wave, and the cardinals had neither air-conditioning nor adequate water supplies. Perhaps it is no surprise that the cardinals finished their work in less than two days.

First considerations

As they begin their discussions about the qualities that are required in a new Pontiff, the cardinals must ask themselves whether they are looking for someone who will boldly confront the challenges facing the Church, or a "caretaker" who will carefully steer the Church through a period of transition. A preference for the bold approach would suggest a younger, physically robust candidate; the choice for a transition Pontiff could be an older man. But any cardinal who thinks that he is voting for a "caretaker" should be mindful of the perception that Pope John XXIII would be likely to preside over a quiet pontificate; instead, he summoned the Second Vatican Council, inaugurating the most turbulent period in Catholic history since the Reformation.

The next question might be whether the new Pope should be "Roman" or not –that is, whether he must have close connections with the Roman Curia. In the past 170 years, only one Pope was serving on the Curia immediately before his election–and that one, Pius XII, was elected under extraordinary circumstances, with Europe marching into World War II and the cardinals looking for a prelate with a certain grasp of Vatican diplomacy. On the other hand, both Popes John XXIII and Paul VI had long careers in Vatican diplomacy before being named Archbishops of Venice and Milan, respectively, and elected from those sees to the papacy.

Background briefings on the election of a Pope often cite traditional Roman adages, some of them demonstrably untrue. There is, for example, the saying that when a conclave begins, "he who goes in a Pope, comes out a cardinal"– meaning that front-running candidates are rarely elected. Actually both Popes Pius XII and Paul VI appeared at the top of most lists of papabili before the conclaves at which they were elected. John XXIII also figured prominently on those lists, as (to a lesser extent) did John Paul I. Of the past five Popes, therefore, the only one who could really be counted as a surprise is John Paul II. And even his election might not have caught observers so thoroughly off guard if they had not assumed that the 455-year Italian monopoly on the papacy would continue.

A more useful principle is encapsulated in the saying that "a fat Pope follows a thin Pope." With the notable exception of Blessed John XXIII, no recent Pontiff has been at all stocky; but the adage is not meant to be taken literally. The point is that in choosing a Pope, the cardinal-electors often look for personal qualities that were missing in the most recent Pontiff.

This explains why reporters pay such careful attention to the eulogy preached at a Pope’s funeral, and to the remarks made by other prelates in reaction to the Holy Father’s death. In their praise for the deceased Pontiff, the cardinals are taking the measure of the man: the fine qualities that he had and, perhaps by inference, those he lacked. Their statements may provide the first sketch of the character the cardinal-electors will be seeking in the new Pope.

The measure of the man

Looking back across the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, eulogists will be able to point to spectacular accomplishments; they may only hint at particular weaknesses. Pope John Paul has had an enormous impact on the history of our era; he has been one of the most widely beloved Popes in history, and unquestionably the most visible. He played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet empire. His list of writings is prodigious: 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 42 apostolic letters, and 3 full books. He has made 102 foreign trips, and held over 1,000 public audiences, attended by more than 17 million people.

The quality of this Pope’s teaching is as remarkable as its quantity. Historian James Hitchcock remarks: "He is by far the most important thinker ever to occupy the papal throne: a theologian and philosopher who would be important even if he were not Pope. The quantity of his output is daunting and will require a century for the Church to digest fully."

Yet in spite of his remarkable energy and intellectual vigor, Pope John Paul has not been successful in stemming a general decline in the practice of the Catholic faith. The enormous personal popularity that he has demonstrated during his apostolic voyages has not translated into higher rates of attendance at Mass in those countries after his departure; the charisma that has riveted millions of teenagers attending World Youth Day ceremonies has not led to a surge in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In his own personal statements on controversial public issues, the Pope has been staunch in his support of Catholic tradition; yet in his appointment of bishops, he has frequently chosen clerics who are quite ready to make their peace with prevailing liberal trends.

After 25 years, the pontificate of John Paul II remains an enigma. It is a popular misconception that he has been a deeply conservative, authoritarian Pope. While his public pronouncements have certainly been conservative from the perspective of the secular world, his governance of the Church has been remarkably liberal. The mass media have failed to recognize his laissez-faire governing style, however, primarily because liberals within the Church keep insisting that he has repressed them.

He is–again, contrary to a popular myth–an unflinching champion of the reforms proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council, in which he played a large and enthusiastic role. He appears to be particularly determined to practice the collegial style of Church governance presaged in the Lumen Gentium, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. He has gone to great lengths to avoid any perception that the Holy See is "interfering" in the work of a diocesan bishop.

In the rare cases when the Vatican has intervened to chasten a wayward bishop, the discipline has been handled by other officials of the Roman Curia, not by the Pope himself. In the case of Bishop Jacques Gaillot, who was removed from the Diocese of Evreux, France, after making a series of heterodox pronouncements, the Vatican explained that the bishop was guilty of failure to cooperate with his colleagues in the French bishops’ conference. Today there are clear disagreements among members of the Roman Curia. Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper have disagreed about the ecumenical import of the Vatican statement Dominus Jesus; the papal master of ceremonies has contradicted the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship regarding the propriety of liturgical dance. Such public disputes would be unthinkable during the reign of an authoritarian Pope.

As they prepare for the coming conclave, some cardinals will praise John Paul II for his energy, but hint that it may be time for a more "open" approach to Church governance. Others will offer exactly the opposite message, saying that the Church needs to "consolidate," and adopt a more disciplined approach. Some prelates will extol the Pope’s support for social justice, and speak wistfully about "pastoral" solutions to contentious issues such as contraception and homosexuality; others will applaud John Paul’s stalwart opposition to "the culture of death," and question whether the Church can cooperate with leftist political movements. In all these statements, the cardinal-electors will be dropping hints about the sort of man they hope to elect as John Paul’s successor.

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