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What Conclave rules did Benedict XVI change?

Chiara Santomiero - published on 02/25/13

Why Benedict XVI's rule changes could produce unforeseen results

There are essentially three areas where Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, Normas Nonnullas – announced Monday but promulgated February 22, 2013 (Feast of the Chair of St. Peter) – modifies or supplements the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (on the election of the Roman Pontiff), which was promulgated on the same date in 1996 by his predecessor, Pope Bl. John Paul II.

Start-date of the Conclave

In No. 37 of Universi Dominici Gregis, John Paul II decreed that the start-date of the conclave was to be set 15-20 days following the vacancy of the Apostolic See. This period of time was deemed necessary – and has been confirmed by history – so that cardinals residing in distant lands might receive news of the Pope’s death and have sufficient time to journey to Rome to participate in the election of his successor. But doubts had arisen as to how this decree was to be applied in cases when the Pope abdicated the papacy with advance notice, or when – due to the increased speed of the modern means of transportation – all of the cardinals were already present in Rome at the beginning of the vacancy of the Apostolic See.

In order to eliminate any uncertainty regarding the interpretation of this decree, Benedict XVI has established in the new formulation of No. 37 that, “from the moment when the Apostolic See is lawfully vacant” (and therefore even in cases when a Pope abdicates), “the Cardinal electors must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent before beginning the Conclave. However, the College of Cardinals (as a whole, not only the Cardinal electors) is also granted the faculty to anticipate the beginning of the Conclave if all the Cardinal electors are present. Similarly, for “grave reasons,” the College of Cardinals is granted the faculty to defer the beginning of the election. However, when a maximum of twenty days have elapsed from the beginning of the vacancy of the See, all Cardinal electors present are obliged to proceed to the election.

The Cardinals’ Active and Passive Voice

“No Cardinal elector can be excluded from active or passive voice in the election of the Supreme Pontiff, for any reason or pretext, with due regard for the provisions of No. 40 and No. 75 of this Constitution,” states the modified No. 35. Thus, in addition to the exceptions provided for in No. 40 – i.e., non-participation by a Cardinal should he refuse, or for reasons of sudden and unexpected illness – No. 75 has been added.

As Universi Dominici Gregis stipulates, if there is still no white smoke after the thirty-fourth ballot to elect the new Pope, the election moves to a ballot between the two cardinals whose names have received the greatest number of votes. “In these ballots” – and here lies the innovation – “the two persons who enjoy the passive electoral right lose their active electoral right”; i.e., the two cardinals on the ballot cannot vote for themselves.

Security and Confidentiality During the Conclave

Normas Nonnulas also steps up measures to protect the security and confidentiality of the Conclave, as well as what is said and done during the election of the pope. “The entire territory of the Vatican City and also the ordinary activities of the offices located therein,” No. 43 reads, “shall be regulated, for the period mentioned, in a way that ensures the confidentiality and the free development of all the undertakings connected with the election of the Supreme Pontiff.” It continues, “In particular, provision shall be made, with the help of the Cleric Prelates of the Chamber, to ensure that no one approaches the Cardinal electors while they are being transported from the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ to the Vatican Apostolic Palace” (from which one reaches the Sistine Chapel, where the voting takes place).

The motu proprio also authorizes the Cardinal Camerlengo to request the assistance of specialized technicians to clear any areas of the interior of the Sistine Chapel or the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ that are suspected of being subject to audio or visual equipment capable of recording anything that takes place during the period of the election.

With regard to the protection of the confidentiality of the Conclave, the Pope also established that all persons “who in any way or at any time should come to learn anything from any source, directly or indirectly, regarding the election process, and in particular regarding the voting which took place in the election itself, are obliged to maintain strict secrecy with all persons extraneous to the College of Cardinal electors; accordingly, before the election begins, they shall take an oath” in the form and using the formula indicated in the motu proprio, in the knowledge that an infraction thereof will subject them to “the penalty of excommunication latæ sententiæ, which is reserved to the Apostolic See.”

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