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Explaining the Vatican’s constitutional papal election process

February 11, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI stunned church watchers worldwide and set up a nearly unprecedented election under the Vatican’s apostolic constitution.

Pope_Benedict_XVI_BlessingPope Benedict XVI's decision to resign for health reasons is unusual. The last pope to leave office voluntarily was Gregory XII in 1415.

The Vatican, however, has a constitutional process for such matters. The pope is, after all, the leader of a Catholic congregation consisting of 1.2 billion people.

The Vatican has a constitution that governs the city-state. The most recent version was crafted by Pope John Paul II in 2001.

In addition to the legal constitution, a pope can issue decrees called apostolic constitutions on various matters. (The origin of the word “constitution” is from Latin and means to establish or confirm.)

Back in 1996, Pope John Paul II issued such a decree called Universi Dominici Gregis, which was an apostolic constitution that defined the very formal, detailed process of electing a new pope. It replaced a previous apostolic constitution on the subject from Pope Paul VI.

Pope Benedict XVI added a procedural change when he succeeded John Paul II, but the Universi Dominici Gregis is the road map used to elect a pope.

Under the “Apostolic Constitution on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff,” there are 92 steps related to the absence of a pope and the election of a successor.

The document talks about dealing with a vacancy in the Apostolic See, but it doesn’t define how the vacancy happens.

In his introduction, Pope John Paul II explains that secrecy is a key part of the election process, once the College of Cardinals is locked inside the Sistine Chapel in a continuing session called a conclave.

“I further confirm, by my apostolic authority, the duty of maintaining the strictest secrecy with regard to everything that directly or indirectly concerns the election process itself,” the pope said.

The College of Cardinals can only deal with “ordinary business and of matters which cannot be postponed” until a new pope is selected. Its primary task is to ensure the election of the Supreme Pontiff.

Article 37 of the apostolic constitution calls for an election that must start in a period between 15 and 20 days after a vacancy in the Apostolic See.

The cardinals, therefore, have 20 days to get to the Vatican, where they will stay in private lodgings. They travel from the lodgings inside the Vatican to the conclave, the continuing meeting that ends with the pope’s election.

Only cardinals under the age of 80 at the time of the papal vacancy can vote.

The apostolic constitution also defines where they will meet in preparation for the conclave and how they proceed to the Sistine Chapel.

Once the conclave starts, there is no communication with the outside world.

“In particular, relying upon the expertise of two trustworthy technicians, they shall make every effort to preserve that secrecy by ensuring that no audiovisual equipment for recording or transmitting has been installed by anyone in the areas mentioned, and particularly in the Sistine Chapel itself, where the acts of the election are carried out,” the apostolic constitution says.

On the first day of the conclave, there is one ballot in the afternoon. If one candidate doesn’t have two-thirds of the vote, the process continues with more ballots.

If the process drags out and several dozen ballots are conducted without a winner over subsequent days, there is a run-off election between the top two vote-getters.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II said that a simple majority should determine the winner in a run-off election. But in 2007, Pope Benedict reinstated the need for a two-thirds majority when he issued a Motu Proprio calling for a run-off election after 21 ballots.

At the end of each day of voting, the paper ballots are burned. If the smoke emerging from the chapel is black, a new pope hasn’t been selected. If the smoke is white, a pope has been elected, and the ringing of bells should accompany the signal.

Inside the Vatican, the newly elected pope is asked if he accepts the office and then states the name that he wishes to be called. The conclave then ends, and the new pope is introduced to the world.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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