Will Lay People Vote in the Next Papal Conclave?

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Just when you thought (and hoped) that Pope Francis was finished remaking the Church, more news breaks to show he’s not slowing down. This time, as reported by respected Vatican journalist Diane Montagna for The Remnant, the pope is considering radically changing how future popes are elected.

The draft document, which Francis has not yet approved, consists primarily of three changes. First, Cardinals over the age of 80, who are already prevented from voting, would not be allowed to participate in the important preparatory phase, which often sets the table for determining who are the most likely papal candidates. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that these non-voting Cardinals happen to be dominated by men not appointed by Francis.

The second change would be to revamp the General Congregations during the conclave, when in the past all Cardinals convened as a body; instead, small working groups would gather, similar in style to the recent Synod on Synodality.

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The third proposed change is the most explosive. Instead of the voting body consisting of all Cardinals under the age of 80 (and only consisting of these men), the voting body would be broken into two groups: 75% of the vote would be these voting Cardinals, then 25% would consist of laymen and laywomen and religious sisters, who would be appointed by Francis before he dies or resigns from office.

Make no mistake, changing the electors of a papal conclave would be the most radical change of the Francis papacy, and one of the most significant moves in Church history.  Changing the electors of a papal conclave would be the most radical change of the Francis papacy, and one of the most significant moves in Church history. Tweet This

Before I detail why I think this is a bad idea, let’s get one concern out of the way. If Francis were to approve this change, it would not, I repeat not, invalidate future conclaves. The reality is that there is no single divinely-instituted way in which a pope, or any bishop, is chosen for office. Church history has demonstrated that bishops, including the bishop of Rome, have risen to office in a variety of ways, from casting lots (Acts 1:26) to bribery and nepotism.

During the “pornocracy” of the 10th century, popes were essentially hand-picked by the ruling families around Rome. These selections were made for purely political reasons, and while there might have been the appearance of an election, there were no truly free papal elections during this time.

In the 11th century, Pope Benedict IX obtained the papal office through bribery, and then he himself actually sold the office, not once, but twice! 

It’s not just scandal that led to popes being elected via irregular ways. Arguably the greatest pope outside of St. Peter, St. Gregory the Great, was voted into office by acclamation. When Pope Pelagius II died of the plague that was raging through Rome, the people—both clergy and lay—demanded that Gregory take office, which he did.

It is partly because of the irregularities in the 10th and 11th centuries that the college of Cardinals, which had been first created in the 9th century, was eventually given sole responsibility for electing popes in the 12th century. But note that the popes who obtained their office previously through irregular or even unseemly means are still considered valid popes by the Church. Look at a list of popes and you’ll see Pope Benedict IX listed three separate times.

So the papacy does not require a specific voting method in order to be valid. Over the centuries there have been various modifications to conclave rules; most recently Pope John Paul II allowed a majority vote (rather than two-thirds majority) to prevail after 33 votes, but then Pope Benedict XVI rescinded that rule in 2007. Thus, it is well within the authority of a pope to change how a conclave operates.

In the midst of these various methods of electing a pope it’s important to remember that essentially all papal elections are by acclamation, in the sense that if the Church accepts an election as valid, then it’s valid, no matter how it came about.

However, just because a revamped papal voting system is valid doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and in the case of the changes being considered by Francis, it would definitely not be a good idea.

First, it would be another example of Francis causing unnecessary confusion and scandal. Because most Catholics are poorly catechized today, we already have a situation in which a small but significant number of Catholics don’t believe Francis himself is a valid pope, either because Pope Benedict XVI didn’t resign properly, or the 2013 conclave was invalid, or some other reason. Including non-Cardinals in a future conclave, while technically legitimate, would only lead to more speculation that we don’t have a legitimate pope in the future. 

That being said, it’s not the inclusion of lay people that’s the fundamental problem. Heck, I would love to give a conclave vote to a TLM-attending homeschooling mom rather than most of today’s Cardinals. In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere that the laity should be involved in the selection of bishops around the world. 

No, the problem isn’t the inclusion of the laity, the problem is that this is another example of using the guise of “synodality” (which is promoted as ecclesiastical democracy) to put a vise-grip on the levers of power by Pope Francis and his progressive flunkies.

Why, for example, should the pope be the one to pick the lay people who will participate in the next conclave? He’s already selected the Cardinal-electors—wouldn’t true “synodality” allow for some process by which the laity select these lay electors? We saw how the pope picked members of the recent synod: there were no representatives from Courage or TLM communities or more orthodox groups. Instead, we got the likes of Fr. James Martin and other Francis sycophants.

It’s highly likely then that Francis picks would not include members of the four groups Leila Lawler noticed missing at the Synod: “first, devoted wives and mothers seeking only “the noble office of a Christian woman and wife” (in the words of Pius XI) in the home; second, strong fathers who sacrificially take on the role of sole providers of their families; third, piously cloistered nuns; and fourth, committed pastors of parishes.”

To be honest, I’m all for those groups voting for a pope!

Everyone knows that these proposed changes are being considered to ensure the continuation of the Francis Revolution. And the Vatican knows we all know this, but at this point, they don’t care because they know there is not enough courage in the Church to truly challenge these changes. 

That being said, I feel like this is another example of Francis acting as an insecure man desperately clinging to power as he sees his end is near. Those who only look to this world, instead of the next, are consumed with trying to establish a “legacy.” Yet the saint cares little about his own legacy, or of human machinations to retain power and influence the future. The saint has faith in divine providence and leaves it to God to determine the path forward.

God laughs at our plans, and I think He laughs at these papal plans as well. While Francis might try to stack the deck to ensure a “Francis II,” we can take comfort that we follow a “God of surprises” and the best-laid plans of men do not always come to fruition.


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.


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