A new Pope is elected through a number of ballots cast by eligible Cardinals who gather in Rome from around the world. The present form of papal election, also known as a conclave, has been around for about five hundred years, with some variations to adjust for the needs of different eras. A future pope is elected by as many as 120 eligible cardinals (at last count 115 will be voting this time), all of whom are under the age of 80. The number and nature of the electors, as well as the lack of campaigning, distinguish a conclave from any sort of political election. The man elected is one who will be led by the Holy Spirit to guide the Universal Church in his role as the Vicar of Christ.
After a Pope dies or resigns, what is the process of electing a new one?
For Catholics, the moment when white smoke rises in the Vatican and the words “Habemus Papam” (“We have a Pope”) are announced is one that signals a new pontificate and, often, a new era in the Church. Leading up to this pronouncement, however, is a series of events beginning with the death of the reigning pope.
Upon the pope's death, eligible cardinals from around the world gather in Rome for the papal conclave (papal election). Fr. John Wauck, professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and a commentator during the last papal conclave in 2005, says that while there isn't a set amount of time between the death of the Pope and the beginning of a conclave, the average seems to be about 2 to 3 weeks.
“Usually,” Fr. Wauck explains, “the conclave is preceded by a Mass in St. Peter's asking the Holy Spirit for guidance in the selection of the next pope. Once the cardinals have entered the Sistine Chapel, the conclave proper begins with the Master of Ceremonies expelling all those who will not participate in the voting for the conclave from the Chapel ("Extra omnes"). The doors of the Chapel are then locked (cum clave).” (As you may have guessed, the phrase “cum clave” is the origin of the word “conclave.”)
Once the conclave has begun, there is a series of votes wherein Cardinals cast ballots for the new Pontiff. A two-thirds majority is needed for a successor to be chosen; therefore, there is often a number of votes until this result is achieved.
It can take many days before a new Pope is elected, during which the public knows little about what is occurring. This is meant to be an opportunity for the Cardinals to gather without other influences or distractions. Fr. Wauck comments, “The idea of the cardinals being alone with God, without distractions, sitting in front of Michaelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, strikes me as a very appropriate setting for such an important decision.”
Has the Pope always been elected in this way?
Christ established the papacy and appointed the first pope, St. Peter. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ chose Peter saying, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Sources vary on the process by which the Early Church elected a pontiff. Some write that he was elected by a sort of senate, composed of priests and deacons, while others maintain that the faithful and the clergy of Rome were involved in the process. Later on, Roman emperors were often influential in the decision-making (Catholic Encyclopedia). It is clear, however, that there has not been one consistent form of papal election throughout the course of Church history.
Dr. Edward Peters, J.D., expert canonist and a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura, explains the justification for what was a changing system of papal election throughout Church history: “Jesus left it to his Church to decide the manner of choosing the successor of his vicar on earth, St. Peter. The process of choosing a pope has evolved over many centuries in response to various factors but the basic form of the papal conclave that we have today, election by cardinals from around the world, has been in place for a good 500 years and seems to function pretty well. The papacy went through its share of dark days, to be sure, but, for more a couple centuries now, we have been blessed to have popes who were not only personally upright men, but men possessing obvious teaching talent and, often enough, good administrative skills too. Those are important things to have in a pope, and conclaves seem to be choosing such men.”
The next Holy Father will be elected by 120 cardinals, but not every cardinal is eligible to be part of the conclave.
The determining factor of whether a Cardinal is eligible to vote is whether or not he has reached his 80th birthday. This standard for eligibility was put into place by Pope Paul VI, and there are several reasons for it.
“First,” Dr. Peters says, “because papal conclaves require physical presence over an extended period of time, they are a logistical burden on cardinals – many of whom must travel from remote points on the globe – and on the Vatican itself that suddenly has a large and very unusual clientele to care for. Pope Paul’s rule, in effect, relieves the elderly of the burden of attendance. To some degree, too, I think the pope had in mind the idea that younger electors were going to be more directly impacted by papal elections than are the elderly and so should have a great voice in choosing the pope.” While some contest this rule, Dr. Peters does not foresee it being changed any time in the near future.
What is it that makes a conclave distinct from, for example, a governmental election?
A papal conclave is significantly different from the modern-day elections we are accustomed to in democratic republics. Fr. Wauck points out that “although it is truly an election, it is by no means a ‘popular’ election. The number of voting cardinals is only around 120, and they are electing the head of a billion-member Church.” Another major difference, both Fr. Wauck and Dr. Peters agree, is that campaigning for the job is prohibited. This papal conclave law against “politicking,” Dr. Peters explains, means that “the usual social factors impacting political elections, notably the media, cannot influence the outcome of a papal election.”
“Finally, a major difference would be that only a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who will be governed by a pope has a voice in electing him. I think there are number of advantages to such a system of ecclesiastical elections, perhaps most notably, that a man elected pope today in no way owes his office to various pressure groups” (Dr. Peters).
Can we know that the right man was picked for the job?
“We know that in matters of such importance the Holy Spirit guides the Church and there is little doubt in my mind but that sometimes the Spirit guides the conclave toward ‘the right’ candidate for the times,” states Dr. Peters. “But,” he goes on to say, “I would caution against thinking that there is only one right man for the job at any given time. As with so many great tasks in life, the question is not so much who has the responsibility to lead the Church, but rather, how that Pope performs his task. The assistance of the Holy Spirit is, I think, more evident, and even more important, in being Pope than in becoming Pope.”