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Electing the Next Pope

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Every human is mortal, and that includes popes. Some live and reign for extraordinarily long times while others only serve for a few days, but in the end all die and a new pope must be elected. How are popes chosen? It’s a process that seems shrouded in secrecy; the details of any particular election are supposed to be kept hidden, but general information about the typical process is indeed known.

There is no “deputy pope” or “vice-pope” in the Roman Catholic Church — all of the power of the papacy is vested in a single man who holds office for the whole of his life unless he chooses to step down (an action which has only occurred four times: Clement I in 97, Pontian in 235, Benedict IX in 1045, and Celestine V in 1294). Because of this, there is no person who can be regarded as standing closest to power and hence is most likely to take over once a pope dies.

This means that a new pope comes from a group of candidates, all of whom are supposed to be equally viable. The election of a new pope is probably one of the most important events to occur in Catholicism — it attracts the focused attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world. The next election is sure to see large numbers of reporters from all manner of media swarming through Rome and around the Vatican.

Because the election is held behind closed doors, there will be lack of news for days — perhaps weeks — and that means that reporters hungering for the tiniest scrap of news may end up interviewing just about every citizen of Rome and the surrounding regions in the hopes of finding something, anything, to report. What, however, is going on behind those closed doors?

Resources on papal elections:

    What Happens to the Old Pope?
    Well, first the old pope must be declared dead — after all, you can’t elect a new pope while the old one is still alive. In a ceremony performed by the pope’s Camerlengo (chamberlain), the pope’s name (the name he was baptized with, not his chosen papal name) is called three times, and at each calling his head is struck with a small silver hammer to check that he is indeed dead. I think that we can assume, however, that better tests will have already been done.
    The Conclave
    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.
    Who Votes?
    In the earliest years, the Bishop of Rome was elected by the parish priests of the city of Rome, but he also had to be accepted by the people generally (at one time some bishops were elected, not appointed). In 1059, Pope Nicholas II made a major change by restricting the vote to just the cardinals — a group which had been created only recently.
    Method of Voting
    Naturally, there is a real desire not only to prevent cheating and tampering, but also to prevent people from knowing who has voted for whom. Election can occur via acclamation (where everyone spontaneously agrees to the same man), compromise (where the choice is entrusted to a small group) or scrutiny, where everyone votes via secret ballot. The most common form of election is via scrutiny and it is very rare that the other forms take place.
    Continuity vs. Discontinuity
    One question which faces every conclave and which plays an important role in every election is: do the cardinals want another pope in the same mold as the previous and who will continue the same basic policies, or do they want a pope who will break with the past and take the church on a new course? In answering this question, the cardinals go through two stages of inquiry, much of which actually occurs before the conclave.
    Who Becomes Pope?
    Technically, any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason, is not a heretic, is not in schism, and is not “notorious” for simony can be elected pope — there is no other requirement for election (although there are several requirements before a person can actually assume the papacy once elected). It might even be technically possible for them to elect a non-Catholic male, if they had reason to believe that he would immediately convert to Catholicism.
    Biography: Pope John Paul II
    John Paul II is the second pope to ever choose two names, following his predecessor. Wojtyla was also the first non-Italian to be chosen for this office in over 400 years and reports indicate that the election of a non-Italian pope may have been pushed by the growing influence of Catholics from outside of Europe. At just 58, he was also the youngest pope since Pius IX in 1846.

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