Papal Politics 101


Since the news recently has been dominated by the death of Pope John Paul II, and with the popularity of the Dan Brown books about arcane and ancient Catholic traditions, I thought people might be interested in knowing how the new pope will be elected. This is both a religious matter and a political one, since the pope is both a religious and a political officeholder, so it falls within my Tuesday jurisdiction.

Here’s the skinny on papal election.

First, the current pope has to die. Technically, it is possible for a pope to resign. No one has ever done it voluntarily, to my knowledge, but several popes were forced to resign in the 10th-11th and 14-15th centuries. A papal resignation hasn’t happened since then, although preliminary plans were made for it in 1939, in case the Vatican was overrun. Once the pope dies, an official called the papal chamberlain stands by his bed and calls to him by his given name (Karol, for John Paul II) 3 times. (He does not, as legend has it, tap the pope’s head with a silver hammer.) Assuming he doesn’t answer, various other officials are called in and the pope’s death certificate is signed. As soon as this happens, the papal chamberlain removes the pope’s signet ring – the “ring of the fisherman” – and crushes it. This is to prevent anyone from stealing it and using it to forge official documents. (The pope also wears a gold bishop’s ring, since in addition to being pope he is also the bishop of Rome. This ring is buried with him.)

Until the new pope is elected, the papal chamberlain takes charge of the Catholic Church. Aside from him, the Vicar to Rome, and the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary (not a prison), all the other chief officials of the various departments of the Church resign; their terms end with that of the pope who appointed them. Formal notices are sent to all the cardinals, and they all come to Rome. Right now, there are 183 cardinals, of whom 118 are eligible to vote for the new pope – who will be the 263rd pope, by the way; the papacy is the oldest continually functioning office in the world. I might add that, technically, every pope is said to be the successor of Peter, not of the previous pope.

The official process by which the cardinals elect the new pope is called the “conclave.” The conclave begins, by rule, between 15 and 20 days after the death of the pope. During those days, the cardinals plan the deceased pope’s funeral, get acquainted with each other, etc. They also get together for several “General Congregations.” This is when the real politicking takes place. The cardinals are forbidden to say whom they will vote for, to bargain their vote, or to ask anyone else whom they will vote for. Other than that, they can and do talk about the process as much as they want. Also during this pre-conclave period, there are 9 days of official mourning for the deceased pope. During these days, various cardinals will give sermons; these are watched very closely for indications of what the cardinals are thinking, in terms of both people and issues.

Then the conclave begins. The cardinals go to St. Peter’s Basilica to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit, which is to call down divine guidance on their proceedings. They then file from St. Peter’s to the Sistine Chapel, singing a 9th-century hymn called “Come, Creator Spirit,” and the conclave begins in earnest. During the conclave, the cardinals are completely cut off from the rest of the world (“conclave,” in fact, means “locked in”); they take this very seriously, including sweeping the entire area for electronic listening devices.

They might not vote on the first day of the conclave, but after that there will be up to 4 votes each day. During a vote, each cardinal is given a paper ballot, called a “scrutiny,” on which they write the name of the man they are voting for (they’re supposed to disguise their handwriting). They take this to the front of the chapel and place it in a large chalice. Three cardinals are chosen (by drawing lots) to be the “scrutineers” — the people who count and read aloud the ballots. Three more are chosen to confirm the count. And three more are chosen to carry ballots back and forth to any cardinals too ill to come to the chapel. Every eligible cardinal must vote every time. As the ballots are read aloud, one of the scrutineers runs a needle and thread through them, and when all of them have been read, he ties the thread in a knot, forming a closed loop.

At the end of each day, these bundles of ballots are burned. If no pope has been selected, they add wet straw to the fire to make the smoke black. If a pope has been selected, they add chemicals to it to make the smoke white. With the ballots burned, the only record of the votes is a journal kept by the papal chamberlain. These are stored in the Vatican archive. No one outside the process has ever been allowed to see them. Ever.

Once someone has enough votes to win (two-thirds, or, if voting goes on long enough, a simple majority), the dean of the college of cardinals approaches that man and asks him if he is willing to serve. If he says yes, he instantly becomes pope. No other ceremony is required. The dean then asks him by what name he wants to be called, and each cardinal comes by and offers his respects. Within a couple of hours, the new pope is introduced to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. This is the last time the pope’s given name (i.e., his non-papal name) will be used within the church, until the papal chamberlain calls it out 3 times at his death.

That’s it. The world has a new pope.

If you’re wondering who might be likely to be elected, your guess is probably as good as anyone’s. There’s really no telling. There’s an old saying that goes, “Who goes in a pope, comes out a cardinal,” meaning: the guy you think is a lead pipe lock to get it will still be a cardinal when the counting’s over. There are a couple of general principles you can go by, though, if you just can’t resist the urge to predict. For one, an Italian is always a good bet. For another, don’t bet on an American. You can also probably count out anyone from Africa, as the Catholic churches there are considered too young. Other than that, you might look at the major issues the Catholic Church is facing right now. Those are what the cardinals will be thinking about when they vote: who will be best suited to deal with these issues?

Generally speaking, the major issues right now are: collegiality (a big issue having to do with the relationship between the pope and the bishops, which has been festering for about 150 years); ecumenism & interreligious dialogue (especially with Islam); globalization, poverty, and social justice; bioethics, sexuality, and the family; and the relationship between the clergy and the laity, particularly regarding women.

The election of a pope is a major historical event, even for us non-Catholics. The processes involved are as ancient and steeped in tradition and full of symbolic meaning as any you’ll ever witness. All those grail legends Dan Brown writes about are yesterday’s newspaper by comparison.


21 Responses to “Papal Politics 101”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    How interesting!

    I’m assuming you didn’t obtain your information from your local media. 🙂 I wondered if my old hometown even carried the news!!!

    It is BIG news where I live now, and I had a neat opportunity yesterday to have a long visit with a Catholic friend who is both knowledgable of the process and a close enough friend where we can talk openly w/o feeling like the other is trying to feed the other a line. That was really neat.

    Thanks for filling me in even more than he did on the papal election. I’m so glad all it took for me to secure my current employment was for the Ocean Springs conclave to be desperate enough to give someone like me a chance! (although choosing a new name might have been cool – I would have had to have watched both Fletch movies to consider all my choices)

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    Could you expand on the collegiality issue, for the ignorant out here? If you have time. What issues are festering? Also, since I don’t want to do my homework, what caused the forced resignations back in the day?

  3. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I can’t believe his body is lying in state for so long. Four full days. Any insight into the reasoning behind that? Just so everyone that wants to can have a “look-see”? I’m leery of checking any of my normal news sources for fear of seeing those creepy looking pictures all over the TV and internet.

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Collegiality has to do with the degree of power-sharing between the pope and the college of bishops. Many of the bishops, not surprisingly, feel too much power has been concentrated in Rome, and they complain loudly about it everytime they convene. The best online article about it I could find is this one.

    Some of the popes who were forced to resign were, essentially, deposed by powerful emperors who just didn’t like them. Others were forced out by circumstance. Gregory XII, in the 15th century, resigned when the “Great Schism” with the Eastern churches was happening. At the time, he was one of 3 or 4 people all claiming to be pope.

    Yes, I think the reason John Paul II is lying in state for 4 days is just so people can visit the casket and say goodbye. He was a particularly beloved pope.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Okay, I’ll admit I’m disappointed in the forced resignations. I was hoping for something naughty.

  6. ill_legit Says:

    thanks for this article. I was wondered how all that stuff worked out. very interesting

  7. boabhan sith Says:

    Uhm…this is not about the article…more this site, in general.

    What an awesome idea! Are the lot of you just a group of friends?
    …And I love the name “Desperate Houseflies.”

  8. Michael Lasley Says:

    Boabhan, Thanks. Some of us know each other and some of us don’t. Al is the brain behind all of this. He knows all of us. And I think he named the blog. I wasn’t allowed a vote in the naming process, but I’m sure he appreciates that compliment.

  9. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Thanks. And, yes, we’re just a group of friends — more or less. Some of us have never met, but we’re all friends of the Head Housefly, Al, so each of us figures all the others must be okay.

    Even the ones who are completely wrong about politics. 🙂

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Statements to which I take offense:

    (1) “I wasn’t allowed a vote in the naming process.” – Mikey (Okay, that’s true, but I still feel offended by the statement.)

    (2) “…we’re all friends of the Head Housefly, Al, so each of us figures all the others must be okay.” – Trent (What a completely ridiculous conclusion! Once again, offensive.)

    (3) “Al is the brain behind all of this.” – Mikey (Well, this one just goes without saying…)

  11. Coolhand Says:

    great article. totally fascinating.

    I’m not up on my papal history, but I have to think JP2 was one of the best. He seemed very human for someone holding the most prestigious office on earth. I just liked the guy.

  12. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I think it would be appropriate to point out in response to this column’s topic that the “Cardinals” from “St. Louis” whipped the holy grail out of the Astros yesterday.

  13. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Hey Al,
    Do you know Brad Lidge’s new nickname? They call him “the Pontiff” because he ruled the Cardinals last fall. 🙂 Pettite’s back on the hill tonight. Can’t wait for that!

  14. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Yeah, but you know what happened to the Pontiff since then, huh?

    Wait, this is getting a bit too morbid…

  15. cwhips Says:

    That was interesting. Do you happen to know why some of the cardinals are ineligible to vote?

  16. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Cardinals over the age of 80 are not allowed to vote.

  17. Michael Lasley Says:

    What, Juvenil, is an apostolic penitentiary, exactly?

  18. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I was sure that was going to be the first comment on this post.

    As I understand it, the Apostolic Penitentiary is tasked with setting guidelines for penance and with handling disputes related to the confessional. It’s a highly secretive body (presumably because it has to do with confession).

    Here’s a useful link.

  19. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “Do you know Brad Lidge’s new nickname? They call him “the Pontiff” because he ruled the Cardinals last fall.”

    Based on last night’s boxscores, rumors of the pope’s demise must be greatly exaggerated.

  20. AJ Says:

    Is that your REAL name?

    I’m only asking because I just finish reading Love in the Time of Cholera.

  21. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Sadly, no. Great book, though, eh?

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