A papal election is the method by which the Roman Catholic Church fills the office of Bishop of Rome, whose incumbent is known as the Pope. An occasion steeped in centuries-old tradition, this meeting of clergymen held to select the Pope is referred to as a conclave. The term comes from the Latin phrase cum clave ("with a key"), referring to the "locking away" of the electors during the process. Conclaves have been employed since the Second Council of Lyons decreed in 1274 that the electors should meet in seclusion. They are now held in the Sistine Chapel in the Palace of the Vatican.
Since the year 1059, the College of Cardinals has served as the sole body charged with the election of the Pope. In earlier times, members of the clergy and the people of Rome were entitled to participate, in much the same way as the laity helped determine the choice of bishops throughout the Catholic Church during this early period. Popes may make rules relating to election procedures; they may determine the composition of the electoral body, replacing the entire College of Cardinals if they were to so choose.
Table of contents
The procedures relating to the election of the Pope have undergone almost two millennia of development. Procedures similar to the present system were introduced in 1274 with the Second Council of Lyons.
The earliest bishops were most likely chosen by the founders of their communities. Later, however, this method was replaced in Rome and elsewhere with that of election by the clergy and laity of the community and the bishops of neighbouring dioceses. The true electoral body was the clergy, which did not cast votes, instead selecting the Pope by general consensus or by acclamation (with bishops supervising the process). The candidate would then be submitted to the people for their approbation; Romans typically signified approval (or disapproval) tumultuously. The lack of clarity in the election procedures often resulted in the election of rival Popes or antipopes.
The Lateran Synod held in 769 officially abolished the theoretical suffrage held by the Roman people, though in 862, a Synod of Rome restored it to Roman noblemen. A major change was introduced in 1059, when Nicholas II decreed that the cardinals were to elect a candidate, who would take office after receiving the assent of the clergy and laity. The most senior cardinals, the Cardinal Bishops, were to meet first and discuss the candidates before summoning the Cardinal Priests and Cardinal Deacons for the actual vote. A Synod of the Lateran held in 1139 removed the requirement that the assent of the lower clergy and the laity be obtained.
The cardinals' exclusive right to elect the Pope was questioned during the Papal Schism that began in 1378. After the death of the French-born Pope Gregory XI in that year, Romans rioted to ensure the election of an Italian; the cardinals complied by choosing Pope Urban VI. Later, in the same year, the cardinals moved to Fondi and elected another rival Pope. The Council of Pisa met in 1409 to resolve the conflict, but only managed to elect a third claimant. The conflict was only resolved by the Council of Constance (which met between 1414 and 1418), which received the abdication of one claimant and deposed the two others. The Council then proceeded to elect Pope Martin V, ending the Papal Schism. Since that election, the cardinals have remained the sole electors of Popes. Furthermore, it was declared that no council would have authority over the Pope, and that a papal election could not be undone.
Having fallen to as few as seven members in the 13th century, the College grew until in 1587, Sixtus V limited the cardinalate to 70 members (six Cardinal Bishops, 50 Cardinal Priests, and 14 Cardinal Deacons) but Popes since John XXIII have paid no heed to the guideline. In 1970, Paul VI decreed that cardinals over the age of eighty were ineligible to be part of the electorate, and also increased the limit on the number of cardinal electors to 120. Even this limitation was disregarded by John Paul II. John Paul II also changed the rule so that cardinals that were under eighty on the day the Holy See become vacant but turn eighty before the conclave start still have a vote. Of the Church's current 182 cardinals, 116 are under eighty years of age, and thus qualified to vote on a papal successor.
Choice of the electors
Originally, lay status did not bar election to the Bishopric of Rome. In 769, the candidate was required to be a clergyman; the requirements later became more stringent, with only cardinals being eligible to be elected. In 1179, the Third Council of the Lateran reversed these requirements, once more allowing laymen to be elected (this does not mean the person elected remains an unordained layman while serving as pope; see acceptance and proclamation below). In 1378, Urban VI became the last Pope who was not a cardinal at the time of his election. There is no requirement that a Bishop of Rome be Italian; the present incumbent, Benedict XVI, is German, and his predecessor, John Paul II, was Polish. Prior to Benedict and John Paul, the last Pope to hail from a nation outside Italy was the Dutchman Adrian VI, elected in 1522. In the current day, any baptised male, except for a heretic, schismatic or simonist, can be elected by the College of Cardinals.1 Women have never been eligible for the papacy; claims that there was a female Pope, including the supposed Pope Joan, are fictitious.
A simple majority sufficed for an election until 1179, when the Third Lateran Council increased the required majority to two-thirds. Cardinals were not allowed to vote for themselves; an elaborate procedure was adopted to ensure secrecy while at the same time preventing cardinals from voting for themselves2. In 1945, however, Pius XII dispensed with the procedure, compensating for the change by increasing the requisite majority to two-thirds plus one. In 1996, John Paul II restored the two-thirds majority requirement, but not the prohibition on cardinals voting for themselves. John Paul's constitution allows the electorate, by an absolute majority vote, to advise and change the election rules if deadlock still prevails seven ballots after the address by the senior Cardinal Bishop.
Electors formerly made choices by three methods: by acclamation, by compromise and by scrutiny. When voting by acclamation, the cardinals would unanimously declare the new Pope quasi afflati Spiritu Sancto (as if inspired by the Holy Spirit). When voting by compromise, the deadlocked College of Cardinals would select a committee of cardinals to conduct an election. When voting by scrutiny, the electors cast secret ballots. The last election by compromise was that of John XXII (1316), and the last election by acclamation was that of Gregory XV (1621). New rules introduced by John Paul II have formally abolished these long-unused systems; now, election is always by ballot.
For the greater part of its history, the Church has been influenced in the choice of its leaders by powerful monarchs and governments. For example, the Roman Emperors once held considerable sway in the elections of Popes. In 418, Honorius settled a controverted election, upholding Boniface I over the challenger Eulalius. He ordered that in future cases, controverted elections would be settled by fresh elections; the method was never applied before its lapse. After the demise of the Western Roman Empire, clout passed to the Ostrogothic Kings of Italy. In 532, John II formally recognised the right of the Ostrogothic monarchs to ratify elections. By the end of the 530s, the Ostrogothic monarchy was overthrown, and power passed to the Byzantine Emperors (who are known as the Eastern Roman Emperors). A procedure was adopted whereby officials were required to notify the Exarch of Ravenna (who would relay the information to the Byzantine Emperor) upon the death of a Pope before proceeding to the election. Once the electors arrived at a choice, they were required to send a delegation to Constantinople requesting the Emperor's consent, which was necessary before the individual elected could take office. Lengthy delays were caused by the sojourns to and from Constantinople; when Benedict II complained about them, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV acquiesced, ending the confirmation of elections by the Emperors. Thereafter, the Emperor was only required to be notified; the requirement was dispensed with by Zacharias and by his successors.
In the 9th century, a new empire—the Holy Roman Empire, which was German, not Italian—came to exert control over the elections of Popes. While the first two Holy Roman Emperors, Charlemagne and Louis, did not interfere with the Church, Lothar claimed that an election could not be conducted except in the presence of imperial ambassadors. In 898, riots forced John IX to recognise the superintendence of the Holy Roman Emperor; the local secular rulers in Rome also continued to exert a great influence, especially during the tenth century period known as the pornocracy.
In 1059, the same papal bull that restricted suffrage to the cardinals also recognised the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, at the time Henry IV, but only as a "concession" made by the Pope, thus establishing that the Holy Roman Emperor had no authority to intervene in elections except where permitted to do so by papal agreements. Gregory VII was the last to submit to the interference of the Holy Roman Emperors; the breach between him and the Holy Roman Empire caused by the Investiture Controversy led to the abolition of the Emperor's role. In 1119, the Holy Roman Empire acceded to the Concordat of Worms, accepting the papal decision.
From the sixteenth century, certain Catholic nations were allowed to exercise the so-called "right of exclusion" or "veto". By an informal convention, each nation was allowed to veto not more than one papal candidate; any decision made by a nation was conveyed by one of its cardinals. The power of exclusion was, by the same custom, only exercisable by any nation once. Therefore, the nation's cardinals did not announce the use of the power until the very last moment when the candidate in question seemed likely to get elected. No vetoes could be employed after an election. After the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, its place was taken by Austria (which was a part of the Empire and whose ruler was also Holy Roman Emperor). Austria became the last nation to exercise the power in 1903, when Cardinal Puzyna de Kosielsko informed the College of Cardinals that Austria opposed the election of Mariano Cardinal Rampolla (who had received 29 out of 60 votes in one ballot). Consequently, the College chose Giuseppe Cardinal Sarto with 55 votes. St Pius X, as Cardinal Sarto came to be known, abolished the right of the veto. He declared that any cardinal who communicated his government's veto would suffer excommunication, or expulsion from Church communal life.
In earlier years, papal elections sometimes suffered prolonged deadlocks. To resolve them, authorities often resorted to the forced seclusion of the cardinal electors. The method was adopted, for example, in 1216 by the city of Perugia and in 1241 by the city of Rome. After the death of Clement IV in 1268, the city of Viterbo was also forced to resort to the seclusion of cardinals in the episcopal palace. When the cardinals still failed to elect a Pope, the city refused to send in any materials except bread and water. As a result, the cardinals soon elected Gregory X, ending an interregnum of almost three years.
To reduce further delays, Gregory X introduced stringent rules relating to the election procedures. Cardinals were to be secluded in a closed area; they were not even accorded separate rooms. No cardinal was allowed to be attended by more than one servant unless ill. Food was to be supplied through a window; after three days of the meeting, the cardinals were to receive only one dish a day; after five days, they were to receive just bread and water. During the conclave, no cardinal was to receive any ecclesiastical revenue.
Gregory X's strict regulations were later abrogated in 1276 by Adrian V, but after he was elected in 1294 following a two-year vacancy, Celestine V restored them. In 1562, Pius IV issued a papal bull that introduced regulations relating to the secrecy of the ballots and other procedural matters. Gregory XV issued two bulls that covered the most minute of details relating to the election; the first, issued in 1621, concerned electoral processes, while the other bull, issued in 1622, fixed the ceremonies to be observed. In 1904, Pius X issued a constitution consolidating almost all of the previous ones, making some changes. Several reforms were instituted by John Paul II in 1996.
The location of the conclaves was not fixed until the fourteenth century. Since the Western Schism, however, elections have always been held in Rome (except in 1800, when Neapolitan troops occupying Rome forced the election to be held in Venice), and normally in the Vatican City (which has, since the Lateran treaties of 1929, been recognised as an independent state). Within Rome and the Vatican City, different locations have been used for the election. Since 1846, when the Quirinal Palace was used, the Sistine Chapel has always served as the location of the election. Popes have often written "election constitutions" fine-tuning the rules for the election of their successors: Pope Pius XII's Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis of 1945 governed the conclave of 1958, Pope John XXIII's Summi Pontificis Electio of 1962 that of 1963, and Pope Paul VI's Romano Pontifici Eligendo of 1975 those of 1978.
In 1996, John Paul II promulgated a new apostolic constitution, called Universi Dominici Gregis (Shepherd of the Lord's Whole Flock), which, unless superseded by later regulations, now governs the election of the Pope's successor. The procedures outlined, however, in many cases date to much earlier times. Universi Dominici Gregis is the sole constitution governing the election; it abrogates all constitutions previously issued by Popes. Under Universi Dominici Gregis, the cardinals are to be lodged in a purpose-built edifice, the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ, but are to continue to vote in the Sistine Chapel.
Several duties are performed by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who is always a Cardinal Bishop. If the Dean is not entitled to participate in the conclave due to age, his place is taken by the Sub-Dean, who is also always a Cardinal Bishop. If the Sub-Dean also cannot participate, the senior Cardinal Bishop participating performs the functions.
Since the College of Cardinals is a small body, some have suggested that the electorate should be expanded. Proposed reforms include a plan to replace the College of Cardinals as the electoral body with the Synod of Bishops, which includes many more members. Under present procedure, however, the Synod may only meet while called by the Pope. Universi Dominici Gregis explicitly provides that even if a Synod or ecumenical council is in session at the time of a Pope's death, it may not perform the election. Upon the Pope's death, either body's proceedings are suspended, to be resumed only upon the order of the new Pope.
It is considered poor form to campaign for the position of Pope. However, there is inevitably always much speculation about which Cardinals have serious prospects of being elected. Speculation tends to mount when a Pope is ill or aged and shortlists of potential candidates appear in the media. A Cardinal who is considered to be a prospect for the papacy is referred to informally as being papabile (plural noun: papabili), the term being coined by Vatican watchers in the mid-twentieth century.
Death of the Pope
The death of the Pope is verified by the Cardinal Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, who traditionally performed the task by gently striking the Pope's head with a small silver hammer and calling out his Christian (not papal) name thrice. During the twentieth century the use of the hammer in this ritual has been abandoned; under Universi Dominici Gregis, the Camerlengo must merely declare the Pope's death by calling him thrice by his Christian name in the presence of the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, and of the Cleric Prelates, Secretary and Chancellor of the Apostolic Camera. The Cardinal Camerlengo takes possession of the Fisherman's Ring worn by the Pope; the Ring, along with the papal seal, is later destroyed before the College of Cardinals. The tradition originated to avoid forgery of documents, but today merely symbolises the end of the pope's authority.
During the sede vacante, as the papal vacancy is known, certain limited powers pass to the College of Cardinals, which is convoked by the Dean of the College of Cardinals. All cardinals are obliged to attend the General Congregation of Cardinals, except those who are over eighty (but those cardinals may choose to attend if they please). The Particular Congregation, which deals with the day-to-day matters of the Church, includes the Cardinal Camerlengo and the three Cardinal Assistants—one Cardinal Bishop, one Cardinal Priest and one Cardinal Deacon—chosen by lot. Every three days, new Cardinal Assistants are chosen by lot. The Cardinal Camerlengo and Cardinal Assistants are responsible, among other things, for maintaining the election's secrecy.
The Congregations must make certain arrangements in respect of the Pope's burial, which by tradition takes place from four to six days of the Pope's death, leaving time for pilgrims to see the dead pontiff, and is to be followed by a nine-day period of mourning (this is known as the novemdiales, Latin for "nine days"). The Congregations also fix the date and time of the commencement of the conclave. The conclave normally takes place fifteen days after the death of the Pope, but the Congregations may extend the period to a maximum of twenty days in order to permit other cardinals to arrive in the Vatican City.
Beginning of the election
On the morning of the day designated by the Congregations of Cardinals, the cardinal electors assemble in St Peter's Basilica to celebrate the Eucharist. Then, they gather in the afternoon in the Pauline Chapel of the Palace of the Vatican, proceeding to the Sistine Chapel while singing the Veni Creator. The Cardinals then take an oath to observe the procedures set down by the apostolic constitutions; to, if elected, defend the liberty of the Holy See; to maintain secrecy; and to disregard the instructions of secular authorities on voting. The Cardinal Dean reads the oath aloud in full; in order of precedence, the other cardinal electors merely state, while touching the Gospels, that they "do so promise, pledge and swear."
After all the cardinals present have taken the oath, the Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations orders all individuals other than the cardinals and conclave participants to leave the Chapel. The Master himself may remain, as may one ecclesiastic designated by the Congregations prior to the commencement of the election. The ecclesiastic makes a speech concerning the problems facing the Church and on the qualities the new Pope needs to have. After the speech concludes, the ecclesiastic leaves. Following the recitation of prayers, the Cardinal Dean asks if any doubts relating to procedure remain. After the clarification of the doubts, the election may commence. Cardinals who arrive after the conclave has begun are admitted nevertheless. An ill cardinal may leave the conclave and later be readmitted; a cardinal who leaves for any reason other than illness may not return to the conclave.
Each cardinal elector may be accompanied by two attendants or conclavists (three if the cardinal elector is ill). The Secretary of the College of Cardinals, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, two Masters of Ceremonies, two officers of the Papal Sacristy and an ecclesiastic assisting the Dean of the College of Cardinals are also admitted to the conclave. Priests are available to hear the confession in different languages; two doctors are also admitted. Finally, a strictly limited number of servant staff are permitted for housekeeping and the preparing and serving of meals3. Secrecy is maintained during the conclave; the cardinals as well as the conclavists and staff are not permitted to disclose any information relating to the election. Cardinal electors may not correspond or converse with anyone outside the conclave, by post, radio, telephone or otherwise. Universi Dominici Gregis specifically prohibits media such as newspapers, the radio, and television.
On the afternoon of the first day, one ballot may be held. If a ballot take place on the afternoon of the first day and no-one is elected, or no ballot had taken place, four ballots are held on each successive day: two in each morning and two in each afternoon. If no result is obtained after three vote days of balloting, the process is suspended for a maximum of one day for prayer and an address by the senior Cardinal Deacon. After seven further ballots, the process may again be similarly suspended, with the address now being delivered by the senior Cardinal Priest. If, after another seven ballots, no result is achieved, voting is suspended once more, the address being delivered by the senior Cardinal Bishop. After a further seven ballots, the cardinal electors may decide by an absolute majority, to advise and change the election rules. This includes the possibility of eliminating all candidates except the two who have received the greatest number of votes in the previous ballot and reducing the majority require for an election. However, there can be no waiving of the requirement that a valid election takes place only by an absolute majority of the votes.
The process of voting comprises three phases: the "pre-scrutiny," the "scrutiny," and the "post-scrutiny." During the pre-scrutiny, the Masters of the Ceremonies prepare ballot papers bearing the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem ("I elect as Supreme Pontiff") and provide at least two to each cardinal elector. As the cardinals begin to write down their votes, the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations and the Masters of Ceremonies exit; the junior Cardinal Deacon then closes the door. The junior Cardinal Deacon then draws by lot nine names; the first three become Scrutineers, the second three Infirmarii and the last three Revisers. New Scrutineers, Infirmarii and Revisers are not selected again after the first ballot.
Then the scrutiny phase of the election commences. The cardinal electors proceed, in order of precedence, to take their completed ballots (which bear only the name of the individual voted for) to the altar, where the Scrutineers stand. Before casting the ballot, each cardinal elector takes a Latin oath, which translates to: "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." If any cardinal elector is in the Chapel, but cannot proceed to the altar due to infirmity, the last Scrutineer may go to him and take his ballot after the oath is recited. If any cardinal elector is by reason of infirmity confined to his room, the Infirmarii go to their rooms with ballot papers and a box. When the Infirmarii return to the Chapel, the ballots are counted to ensure that their number matches with the number of ill cardinals; thereafter, they are deposited in the appropriate receptacle. The oath is taken by all cardinals only at the first vote.
Once all votes have been cast, the first Scrutineer chosen shakes the container, and the last Scrutineer removes and counts the ballots. If the number of ballots does not correspond to the number of cardinal electors present, the ballots are burnt, and the vote is repeated. If, however, no irregularities are observed, the ballots may be opened and the votes counted. Each ballot is unfolded by the first Scrutineer; all three Scrutineers separately write down the name indicated on the ballot. The last of the Scrutineers reads the name aloud.
Once all of the ballots have been opened, the final post-scrutiny phase begins. The Scrutineers add up all of the votes, and the Revisers check the ballots and the names on the Scrutineers' lists to ensure that no error was made. The ballots are then all burnt by the Scrutineers with the assistance of the Secretary of the College and the Masters of Ceremonies. If the first election held in any given morning or afternoon does not result in an election, the cardinals proceed to the next vote immediately; the papers from both ballots are burnt together at the end of the second vote. The colour of the smoke signals the results to the people assembled in St Peter's Square. Dark smoke signals that the ballot did not result in an election, while white smoke signals that a new Pope was chosen. Originally, damp straw was added to the fire to create dark smoke; since 1958 chemicals have been used. In addition, bells ring after a successful election in case the white smoke is not unambiguously white.
Acceptance and proclamation
Once the election concludes, the junior Cardinal Deacon summons the Secretary of the College of Cardinals and the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations into the hall. The Cardinal Dean then asks the Pope-elect if he assents to the election ("Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?"). If he does, and is already a bishop, he immediately takes office. If he is not a bishop, however, he must be first ordained as one before he can assume office. If a priest is elected, the Cardinal Dean ordains him bishop; if a layman is elected, then the Cardinal Dean first ordains him priest, and only then bishop. Only after becoming a bishop does the Pope-elect take office.
Since 533, the new Pope has also decided on the name by which he is to be called at this time. Pope John II was the first to adopt a new papal name; he felt that his original name, Mercurius, was inappropriate, as it was also the name of a Roman god. In most cases, even if such considerations are absent, Popes tend to choose new papal names; the last Pope to reign under his baptismal name was Pope Marcellus II (1555). After the papal name is chosen, the officials are readmitted to the conclave, and the Master of Pontifical Liturgical writes a document recording the acceptance and the new name of the Pope.
Later, the new Pope goes to the "Room of Tears," a small red room next to the Sistine Chapel. The origin of the name is uncertain, but seems to imply the commixture of joy and sorrow felt by the newly chosen holder of the monumental office. The Pope dresses by himself, selecting among the three sizes of white robes made available, and returns to the conclave, where the Cardinal Camerlengo places the Fisherman's Ring on his finger and each cardinal pays homage to the new Pope, who sits on a footstool near the altar.
Next, the senior Cardinal Deacon (the Cardinal Protodeacon) appears at the main balcony of the basilica's façade to proclaim the new pope with the Latin phrase:
"Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
("I announce to you a great joy:
|Papal Conclaves 1800–2005|
|Papal rituals, symbols & ceremonial|
Coat of Arms of popes|
Cathedral of St. John Lateran|
St. Peter's Basilica|
St. Peter's Square|