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Electing the Next Pope

The Conclave

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The Papal Conclave Day Two
Jeff J Mitchell / Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Voting for a new pope occurs in what is known as a “conclave,” which literally means “with a key.” The term stems from the fact that the voting cardinals have been traditionally locked up somewhere “with a key” for the entire period of their voting.

And they have been locked up pretty tight. For more modern elections, telephone wires were removed. Televisions were removed. As they entered, cardinals were searched for telephones, pagers, microphones, and communications devices of all kinds. Outside windows were sealed and shuttered. Traditionally, the facilities were to be improvised, which is to say that they weren’t to be designed for housing so many people like that.

This, in turn, meant that they were not to be very comfortable — and that was the point. They are under pressure to elect the next pope and they have a tremendous responsibility to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The church relies heavily upon the pope for leadership and guidance; although it can manage to move along for a while due to the extent and power of its bureaucracy, it will grow increasingly difficult on a psychological and religious level to go without its spiritual leader.

Part of the interest in making the cardinals uncomfortable dates back to the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268. This interregnum lasted for nearly three years because political disagreements prevented the cardinals from reaching any sort of agreement. Outraged, the people of Rome refused to give them anything to eat but bread and water — and then they removed the roof of the building they were living in. Pope Gregory X was quickly elected after that and during the Second Council of Lyons which opened on May 7, 1274, new rules for the election of popes were created — one of which was that the cardinals had to meet in seclusion until a successful election occurs.

So, there was absolutely no desire to help make the cardinals comfortable beyond what is absolutely necessary, but some desire to see that they are uncomfortable enough to help them want to get the election over with as soon as possible. This changed when Pope John Paul II altered a number of the voting rules in his Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (“The shepherd of the Lord’s whole flock”).

Now, when the college of cardinals elects John Paul’s successor, they will live at the Domus Sanctae Marthae (St Martha’s House), a hotel-like accommodation in Vatican City. If the cardinals feel too comfortable and take too long to reach a decision about the next pope, it seems likely that yet more new rules will be issued by the new pope which will return the election to uncomfortable surroundings. If, however, the cardinals are mindful of their duties and manage to reach a decision quickly, this new situation is likely to continue for some time to come.

What hasn’t changed is that when the cardinals first enter the conclave they are required to take an oath that they will follow the rules set down by the previous popes for electing a new pope and that they will uphold absolute secrecy about everything that occurs during the voting and deliberations. No one is to know the details about the discussions, the deliberations, or the compromises being made. Should anyone violate this oath and reveal anything that happens during the voting and deliberation process, they suffer the penalty of automatic excommunication.

Voting itself takes place in the Sistine Chapel, so the cardinals will be bussed back and forth between there and the Domus Sanctae Marthae. You can be sure that there will be efforts to “read” the faces and demeanor of various key cardinals during this time by people interested in figuring out who is and is not likely to be elected. Speculations will run wild.

It should not be assumed that discussions in the conclaves are always congenial; on the contrary, there can be rancorous debates and even slanderous accusations leveled against this or that candidate. Electing a pope is as much a political task as it is religious. Nationalist aspirations mix with the defense of orthodoxy and progressive sentiments to create a very volatile mixture; keeping the electors isolated together for long periods of time only ensures that this mixture remains problematic.

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