Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Governance In-Between Retirement and the Election of a New Pope


Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J. is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996). He was editor in chief of America from 1998-2005.

Who governs the church between the pope’s death (or retirement) and the election of a new pope?

All the cardinals and archbishops in charge of departments in the Roman Curia, including the secretary of state (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone), lose their jobs when the pope dies. The ordinary faculties of these offices, which are run by their secretaries during the interregnum, do not cease on the death of the pope, but serious and controversial matters are to await the election of a new pope. The offices are run by their secretaries who remain in position, as do the secretary for relations with states (Archbishop Dominique Mamberti) and the sostituto (Archbishop Giovanni Becciu). If the matter cannot be postponed, the college of cardinals can entrust it to the prefect or president who was in charge of the office when the pope died (or to other cardinals who were members of that congregation or council). Any decision made is provisional until confirmed by the new pope.

Three major officials do not lose their jobs: the vicar of the diocese of Rome (Cardinal Agostino Vallini), the major penitentiary (Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro) and the camerlengo. The vicar for Rome provides for the pastoral needs of the diocese of Rome and continues to have all the powers he had under the deceased pope. The major penitentiary deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See, and he is allowed to continue functioning because the door to forgiveness should never be closed.

The camerlengo (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) is the most important official during the interregnum. While the pope is alive, he has the authority to act for the pope in certain areas when the pope is away from Rome. On the death of the pope, the camerlengo takes charge of and administers the property and money of the Holy See, with the help of three cardinal assistants chosen by lot from among those cardinals under 80. During the interregnum he reports to the college of cardinals, which governs the church until a pope is elected. He also organizes the conclave. By appointing the cardinal secretary of state as the camerlengo, Benedict simplified the organizational structure and made sure that his secretary of state had an important role during the interregnum.

Although the government of the church is in the hands of the college of cardinals until a new pope is elected, the powers of the college are limited. It cannot change the rules governing papal elections, appoint cardinals or make any decisions binding on the next pope. The cardinals meet daily in a general congregation, presided over by the dean of the college (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), until the conclave begins. All the cardinals attend the general congregation, although attendance by those over 80 is optional. A commission headed by the camerlengo with three cardinals (chosen by lot and replaced every three days from among the cardinals under 80) can deal with lesser issues. In 2005, John Paul died on April 2 and the first meeting of the cardinals was on April 4.

The dean of the college of cardinals is elected by and from the six cardinal bishops. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was dean prior to the last conclave, and his speech as dean to the cardinals prior to the conclave received great attention from the cardinals and the media.

Is there campaigning prior to the conclave?

Any discussion, let alone campaigning, prior to the death of a pope is strictly forbidden. The prohibition against discussing papal succession while the pope is still alive dates back to Felix IV (526-30), who instructed the clergy and the Roman Senate to elect his archdeacon, Boniface, as his successor. The senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope’s successor during his lifetime.

Even earlier, a Roman Synod in 499 forbade the clergy from promising or seeking votes.
St. Symmachus gathered at St. Peter’s basilica a council of seventy-two bishops, with the purpose of searching for a way to avoid in the future the return to similar scandals. With the unanimous consent of the assembly, he promulgated an important decree on the papal elections that can be summarized in the following three articles:

1. Prohibits for all the clergy, deacons or priests, under pain of deposition and excommunication, to promise his vote or to seek votes for the election of the future pontiff during the life and behind the back of the reigning pontiff. Prohibits, under the same pains, to attend meetings held for that same purpose.

2. For the purpose of impeding hidden frauds and clandestine conspiracies, it is established that those who reveal to the Church these low maneuvers inspired by a detestable ambition, not only will be protected from all prosecution but will be greatly rewarded.

3. Finally, if the pope dies suddenly, without having had any time to deal with the subject of his successor, will be elected the one who has received the votes of all the clergy, or, in case of a tie, of the majority of the voters. (Decret. Gratiani, part. I, dist. LXXIX, c. 10, Si transitus, t. I, p. 243).

When these decrees were presented to the assembly, the acclamations resounded, and all the fathers, standing up, wrote: “That it be done like this in the future! That the pontifical elections be done from now on in this manner and not in any other!” These prescriptions were signed by all the bishops present, numbering seventy-three, plus the sixty-six priests that attended the meeting. [See Ut si quis papa superstite, constitution, Roman synod of March 1, 499, St. Symmachus (498-514). Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, edited by Giovanni Domenico Mansi, vol. VIII, pp. 229-238.]

Discussions prior to the conclave do occur privately among cardinals, but public campaigning, even after the pope’s death, is frowned upon and would probably be counterproductive. Normally the discussion of candidates is done privately by cardinals over dinner or in small groups. 

Cardinals who travel a great deal are sometimes suspected of doing this in order to meet and become known to other cardinals prior to the conclave. The cardinals have also gotten to know each other at synods of bishops, extraordinary consistories and other meetings where they see each other in action. But the best know cardinals tend to be those working in Rome where they meet prelates when they visit Rome. Curial cardinals are also better known by the Vatican press corps which covers the conclave.

When and where is the conclave held?

Unless circumstances prevent it, the conclave takes place inside Vatican City and begins 15 days after death of the pope. For serious reasons, the cardinals can defer the beginning of the conclave, but it must begin within 20 days of the pope’s death. The exact date and time are set by the college of cardinals. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, with the cardinals living in the five-story Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican residence with 105 two-room suites and 26 single rooms built in 1996, which is vacated by its usual residents during a conclave. The rooms are assigned by lot. A number of elections in the 19th century were held in the Quirinal Palace, which was one of the pope’s palaces until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. The last election to take place outside Rome was in Venice in 1800.

Where does the word “conclave” come from?

In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year-and-a-half before the election of Innocent IV and for three-and-a-half years before the installation of Gregory X. In the first case the election was finally forced by the senate and people of Rome, who locked up the cardinals until a pope was chosen in 1243. In the second case, the people of Viterbo in 1271 not only locked the cardinals in, but tore off the roof of the building and put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water. The word “conclave” comes from the Latin, “with a key,” as in locked with a key. Today the cardinals are locked in to ensure secrecy and to protect them from outside influence. Before the conclave begins, all telephones, cell phones, radios, televisions and Internet connections are removed. No letters or newspapers are permitted. All the rooms are swept for electronic bugs by trained technicians. Whether this will be sufficient to prevent more sophisticated eavesdropping remains to be seen.

Who is permitted in the conclave?

“The detailed description in Angels & Demons depicting the intimate ritual of Vatican conclave–the threaded necklace of ballots…the mixing of chemicals…the burning of the ballots–much of that was from a book published on Harvard University Press by a Jesuit scholar,” said Dan Brown [See Thomas J. Reese, Chapter 4, Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996)]

All cardinals who are under 80 years of age when the pope dies have the right to vote for the next pope, unless they have been canonically deposed or, with the permission of the pope, have renounced the cardinalate. Even an excommunicated cardinal can attend. A cardinal who had resigned and joined Bonaparte attempted to enter the conclave in 1800 but was turned away. Once inside the conclave, an elector may not leave except because of illness or other grave reasons acknowledged by a majority of the cardinals.

The current dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodano, is over 80 and therefore may not enter the conclave.

Also permitted in the conclave are nurses for infirm cardinals, two medical doctors, religious priests who can hear confessions in various languages, the secretary of the College of Cardinals, the master of papal liturgical celebrations with two masters of ceremonies and two religious attached to the papal sacristy, and an assistant chosen by the cardinal dean. Also permitted are a suitable number of persons for preparing and serving meals and for housekeeping. They must swear absolute and perpetual secrecy concerning anything they learn concerning the election of the pope.

(By Father Thomas Reese, S.J.)