Electing the Next Pope

No doubt about it, the white smoke is a thrill. On Octover 16, 1978, late in the day I was marking time with a bunch of reporters in the Sala Stampa della Santa Sede – the Vatican press office – when there it was on the TV screen: a wisp, a puff, a steady stream, billowing from the gimcrack chimney on the Sistine Chapel roof. Having been fooled before, we watched intently. Yes, no…definitely yes.
“It’s white!” Someone let out a whoop, and we burst from the Sala Stampa into St. Peter’s Square. The crowd was gathering. A short time later Karol Wojtyla was presented to us as Pope John Paul II. Standing in the loggia above the basilica’s entrance, he cried out, “Praised be Jesus Christ!”
“Now and forever,” the people replied. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now John Paul’s visible frailty is a poignant reminder that the Church and the world will be watching for the white smoke again one of these days—please God, not too soon. The stakes in the next papal election will be very high.
What is at Stake?
Among the questions facing the cardinals will be: Is the Church ready for a third-world pope? Do we need another ecumenical council just now? How should tensions between the claims of episcopal collegiality and papal primacy be worked out? What concessions, if any, should be offered the Orthodox (possibly others, too) for unity’s sake? Should John Paul’s embrace of the “new movements” in the Church and his strong stands on things like women priests and clerical celibacy, contraception and abortion, and sacraments for the divorced and remarried be maintained—or should they be downplayed, even quietly shelved?
Highlighting questions like these—and focusing attention on the papal succession—were remarks made by Carlo Cardinal Martini, S.J., of Milan during the Synod of European bishops in October and, the following month, in a widely reported interview. Cardinal Martini is the Catholic progressives’ favorite choice to be pope.
At the Synod, he suggested an ecumenical council, or some other sort of collegial exercise involving the world’s bishops, to “loosen doctrinal and disciplinary knots” causing “sore points” in today’s Church. These were said to include the shortage of priests, the role of women, the role of the laity, marriage questions including remarriage after divorce, relations with the Orthodox, and the relationship between morality and law.
It appeared to many people that the cardinal was saying, “Here’s what I’d do if I were pope.” That impression was reinforced by a mid-November broadcast interview in which, repeating what John Paul said in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), he called for changes in the exercise of papal primacy.
The progressives could almost see the plumes of white smoke over the Sistine roof. Others had their doubts.
The Election Process
Whenever the next conclave does take place, understanding it will require understanding the process. In the early cen-turies of the Church, the bishop of Rome was chosen by the clergy and people of the city, but since 1179, the cardinals have been the only electors. The sole exception was in 1417, when 30 representatives of the Council of Constance helped elect Odo Cardinal Colonna as Pope Martin V, thereby ending the Great Schism of the West.
The cardinals choose the pope in a gathering called a conclave. The word means “with a key,” recalling the days when electors were locked up, sometimes for months, until the job was done. Although nowadays the conclave is held in the Sistine Chapel, attached to the Apostolic Palace, there have been many conclaves outside Rome—the last was in 1800—and, during the 19th and 20th centuries, a few in Rome but outside the Sistine.
Many popes have set rules for the conclave. The basic pattern was established by Pope Alexander III in 1179, with changes and refinements added in the century just past by
St. Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI. In Romano Pontifici Eligendo (The Election of the Roman Pontiff), published in 1975, Paul VI set the maximum number of cardinal-electors at 120 and decreed that cardinals aged 80 and above may not vote.
The latest legislation, which will be controlling at the next conclave, is contained in the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (The Lord’s Whole Flock), published by Pope John Paul in 1996. Close familiarity with this detailed and somewhat repetitious document will be indispensable to anyone who wants to know what’s going on.
It begins by reaffirming that the cardinals—no one else—are the papal electors. Two reasons are given: because of their traditional link with the bishop of Rome (cardinals were originally senior clergy of the Roman church) and because the cardinals, coming from every continent, express the Church’s universality and the universal outreach of the Petrine ministry. The apostolic constitution also confirms Pope Paul’s rules that cardinal-electors shall number no more than 120 (at the end of 1999, there were 106, out of a total of 154) and that cardinals 80 and older may not vote.
Universi Dominici Gregis goes into considerable detail about the interregnum, the time between the late pope’s death and the conclave. Besides performing ritual duties, the College of Cardinals—including those 80 and older—is to assemble daily in a “general congregation” presided over by its dean, currently the Benin-born Bernardin Cardinal Gantin, former prefect of the curial Congregation for Bishops. Here the cardinals are to conduct the necessary business of the Church (except for things, like naming bishops, that are reserved for the pope) and prepare for the conclave. Routine matters are handled by “particular congregations,” consisting of the camerlengo (chamberlain) of the Holy Roman Church, at present the Spanish Eduardo Cardinal Martinez Somalo, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and three cardinal assistants. What the cardinals really do at these daily gatherings, of course, is take one another’s measure. True, they’ve been doing that for years at consistories, synods, assemblies of Roman congregations, and other events, as well as in one- on-one encounters. But now, with a papal election imminent, the question is acute: Which one of us shall it be? Universi Dominici Gregis forbids electioneering and deal-making: The cardinal electors shall abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind…. [They are] not to allow themselves to be guided…by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favor or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity. Instead, they should vote for the person (not necessarily a cardinal, though almost certainly the next pope will come from their ranks) whom they judge “most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way?’ John Paul strikes this realistic note: “It is not my intention…to forbid, during the period in which the See is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election:’ Views will be exchanged in the general congregations and other more private settings. Depending on how long it takes the electors to get to Rome (no problem in this age of jets, though in earlier times cardinals coming from afar sometimes missed the voting), the conclave will begin at least 15 and no more than 20 days after the pope’s death. Formerly, the cardinals were obliged to rough it in cramped, temporary cubicles in the Apostolic Palace, but next time they will be in the Domus Sanctae Marthae—St. Martha’s House—a new $20 million hotel-like residence behind the Vatican Audience Hall. While not luxurious, its air-conditioned, two-room suites with private baths are comfortable by any standards.
The cardinals start the conclave’s first day by celebrating Mass together at St. Peter’s, then go in solemn procession to the Sistine. There the dean of the college reads an oath to which each must individually subscribe: We…promise, pledge, and swear that whichever of us by divine disposition is elected Roman Pontiff will commit himself faithfully to carrying out the munus Petrinum [Petrine office] of Pastor of the Universal Church and will not fail to affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights of the Holy See. In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting…and never to lend support or favor to any interference, opposition or any other form of intervention, whereby secular authorities of whatever order or degree or any group of people or individuals might wish to intervene. The theme of secrecy runs throughout the apostolic constitution. Security specialists are to check the Sistine for bugs. The cardinals are not to communicate with anyone outside. Newspapers, radio, and TV are banned (the Internet isn’t mentioned, but its banning can be presumed). If the electors keep vote tallies, these are to be collected after each ballot and burned. The handful of staff allowed to be present (the secretary of the College of Cardinals, three masters of ceremonies, two sacristans, a clerical assistant to the dean, and two physicians) are under equally tight wraps.
Whether or not one considers this concern for secrecy excessive depends on one’s estimate of the chances of history repeating itself. Obviously John Paul’s intention is to forestall outside interference; and it is a fact that emperors, kings, and even angry mobs often have interfered in papal elections. As recently as the conclave of 1903, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, exercising the right of veto often used by Catholic rulers over the centuries, turned thumbs- down on Mariano Cardinal Rampolla, Leo XIII’s secretary of state. Word of the veto was brought to the conclave by the cardinal-archbishop of Cracow, a performance Universi Dominici Gregis forbids any cardinal to repeat.
The Election Proper
With the preliminaries completed, the election begins.
In principle, there formerly were three methods for choosing a pope: acclamation, according to which, quasi inspiratione—as if by inspiration—the cardinals spontaneously recognized someone as Supreme Pontiff; per compromissum, in which authority to make the choice was delegated to a small group; and secret ballot by the body as a whole. Pope John Paul eliminates acclamation and delegation, seldom or never used in any case, and retains only the third method—per scrutinium or “scrutiny.”
On the first day, there is to be, at most, only one ballot in the afternoon, but thereafter, there are four ballots daily— two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each cardinal writes the name of his choice (“in handwriting that cannot be identified as his”) on a rectangular piece of paper with the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem (I choose as Supreme Pontiff) at the top. The paper is folded twice and placed in a receptacle at the altar, while the elector says aloud, “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.” The apostolic constitution also provides for collecting ballots from sick cardinals back in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. The votes are counted by three “cardinal-scrutineers,” with the name on each ballot read to the electors at the end of the count. After counting, the ballots are burned, producing the famous smoke. Chemicals are added to make it black or white.
If no one has been chosen after three days, there is a pause of up to one day for prayer, “informal discussion among the voters,” and a brief spiritual exhortation by the senior cardinal-deacon. At this point, the so-called “great electors”—cardinals good at negotiating agreements and organizing voting blocs—become especially important. Had they lived, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and Basil Cardinal Hume, O.S.B., of Westminster would have been great electors; Godfried Cardinal Danneels of Mechelin-Brussels, Belgium, may be one next time.
After the pause, voting continues for another seven ballots, followed by another pause, seven more ballots, and so on, until there have been up to 34 ballots extending over ten or twelve days. At this point, Universi Dominici Gregis introduces its most striking innovation.
Up to now, following long tradition, election has required two-thirds of the votes or, if the total number of electors is not divisible into three equal parts, two-thirds plus one-71 votes in the voting body of 106 as it stood at the end of 1999. But, this point in the conclave having been reached, the camerlengo is to invite the cardinals to “express an opinion about the manner of proceeding”—and the election will then go forward as the majority decides. Even so, the requirement of a majority vote cannot be waived; one way to get a majority quickly, the apostolic constitution points out, is to vote on the two candidates who got the most votes in the previous round.
John Paul does not explain his reasons for this change, but sparing the Church the ordeal of a drawn-out papal election, such as many in the past have been, must surely have been one. There are different views of the practical results.
Thomas Reese, S.J., says that under the old two-thirds rule, cardinals had to “compromise and look for a consensus candidate.” Now a determined majority far short of two- thirds need only dig in, knowing it will prevail in the end; hence, “the likelihood of a more radical and ideological candidate being elected pope.” That could be. But it is important to bear in mind that this electoral body craves consensus. If, after a week and a half of balloting, members of a slim majority saw no chance of generating more support for their choice, rather than ram him through when the rules changed, they might be moved to join their brothers in the minority in finding a candidate nearly all could accept. The electors’ mood at the time will be crucial, and no one can know that in advance.
Once a man is elected, the dean asks for his consent: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” If he says yes, the dean asks, “By what name do you wish to be called?” Soon the whole world knows the answer.
The Papabile
Besides big issues noted above, the cardinals also will be influenced by certain more mundane considerations in choosing the next pope, such as age. There is a widespread feeling that, following a long pontificate like that of John Paul II, the electors will not choose another relatively youthful pope (Cardinal Wojtyla was 58 when elected) but will opt for a cardinal in, roughly, the 65 to 75 age range. Nationality is another factor. Some think the next conclave may be the Italians’ last hurrah—the last chance for a long time to elect an Italian pope—and they will try to take advantage of the
opportunity. Others think the cardinals may feel the time has come for a non-European. In any case, it would be no surprise if many electors preferred a pope who would spend less time traveling and more time supervising the Roman Curia than John Paul has done.
It is no violation of Pope Gregory XIV’s 1591 ban on betting on papal elections to note that four names stand out in the current speculation: Cardinal Martini; Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi, archbishop of Genoa; Francis Cardinal Arinze, president of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and Lucas Cardinal Moreira Neves, O.P., prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
Cardinal Martini, who was 72 at the end of 1999, is the progressives’ choice, although that is not likely to be a plus in the eyes of many, if not most, electors. The publicity accompanying his remarks last fall may have hurt his chances more than it helped. A biblical scholar who was rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute from 1969 to 1978 and rector of the Gregorian University until named to Milan in late 1979, Cardinal Martini is a man of uncommon intelligence and eloquence. But it may be significant that, despite the media splash, he was not elected by his Synod colleagues to the council that will work with the pope on his summing-up document.
By contrast, not only was Cardinal Tettamanzi-65 as 1999 drew to a close—elected to that body, he was the leading vote-getter, receiving 100 votes out of a possible 160. The cardinal got high marks for heading the writing committee that produced a hope-filled statement at the end of the Synod, whose gloom-filled early days had dismayed many people. A former seminary professor and rector, he has served as general secretary and vice president of the Italian episcopal conference. Pope John Paul named him archbishop of Genoa in 1995 and a cardinal in 1998. For some, his qualifications for the papal office include his not inconsiderable girth, reminiscent of Pope John XXIII. If the electors are looking for an Italian whose name is not Martini, Cardinal Tettamanzi’s chances will be very good.

So will Cardinal Arinze’s if the cardinals are anxious to dramatize and reinforce the Church’s commitment to the third world. The 67-year-old Nigerian has been a bishop for 35 years and was archbishop of Onitsha from 1967 until John Paul II summoned him to Rome in 1984. He was named a cardinal in 1985. As president of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, his experience in dealing with other world religions, especially Islam, gives him important credentials in an area of growing urgency for the Church; being an African with long experience in the Roman Curia is another advantage. Cardinal Arinze has frequently visited the United States.
Similar considerations apply to Cardinal Moreira Neves, who at 75 is the oldest of this select group. A Brazilian of mixed racial heritage, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Sao Paulo in 1967, then brought to Rome as vice president of the Pontifical Commission (now, Council) for the Laity from 1974 to 1979. From 1979 to 1987, he was secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. Pope John Paul named him archbishop of Sao Salvador da Bahia in 1987 and cardinal in 1988, then called him back to the Curia in 1998 to head the Congregation for Bishops. His health, said not to be strong, could argue against his election, but as some see it, less than robust health could be an advantage if the electors don’t want another long pontificate right away.
Media Spin
Unavoidably, most people trying to understand the next conclave will have to depend on the media. Here the situation is mixed, with selectivity about one’s source or sources of information essential.
Regardless of how much the correspondents and anchorpersons pontificate, American television news won’t have a clue; it will be repeating other people’s gossip. Commentary TV is likely to turn again to Catholic progressives eager to spin the story their way. The pictures will be terrific. Turn off the sound.
Among print media, Time’s man in Rome, Greg Burke, and Newsweek’s chief religion writer, Kenneth Woodward, are both very knowledgeable, although Woodward’s opinions as an old-line Catholic liberal sometimes color his reporting. The Associated Press (AP) and Reuters have Rome correspondents (Victor Simpson and Philip Pullella, respectively) who know the Vatican extremely well. AP enjoys the additional advantage of having Richard Ostling, a savvy veteran of Time, as its religion specialist. American dailies, including the New York Times, are not strongly staffed in Rome, but that will change for the Times if it sends Gustav Niebuhr and/or Peter Steinfels to the conclave. Probably the best-informed coverage of all will be supplied by John Thavis, Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, although CNS’s semiofficial status (it is owned by the bishops) limits its freedom to interpret events.
Universi Dominici Gregis opens with these words: The Shepherd of the Lord’s whole flock is the Bishop of the Church of Rome, where the Blessed Apostle Peter, by sovereign disposition of divine Providence, offered to Christ the supreme witness of martyrdom by the shedding of his blood. It is therefore understandable that the lawful apostolic succession in this See…has always been the object of particular attention. Understandable indeed. As all will be reminded again one of these days.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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