As Benedict’s Pontificate Ends, Church Worldwide Awaits Election Of New Pope
Published: February 28, 2013
VATICAN CITY (CNS)—The voting by cardinals to elect the next pope takes place behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, following a highly detailed procedure that underwent major revisions by Blessed John Paul II and a small, but very significant change, by Pope Benedict XVI.
Under the rules, secret ballots can be cast once on the first day of the conclave, then normally twice during each subsequent morning and evening session. Except for periodic pauses, the voting continues until a new pontiff is elected with at least two-thirds of the votes.
Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, reviewed the rules with reporters at the Vatican Feb. 22.
Pope Benedict XVI leads his final Angelus as pope from the window of his apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Feb. 24. His papacy officially ended Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. Rome time. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
The written rules for the conclave, which have developed in reaction to the problems—political and moral—that have arisen throughout history, are “rigid and highly formal,” the bishop said.
For example, he said, Pope Paul VI’s rules excluded cardinals who were 80 years old or older on the day the conclave began. Blessed John Paul changed the rule to 80 years on the day the papacy became vacant. The change ensured cardinals did not choose a conclave start date specifically to include or exclude a cardinal close to the age of 80.
Under current rules, only cardinals who are under the age of 80 Feb. 28, the last day of Pope Benedict’s pontificate—can vote in the conclave. There were 117 cardinals eligible, but Feb. 21 Indonesian Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, the 78-year-old retired archbishop of Jakarta, announced he would not travel to Rome because of his health and Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien announced Feb. 25 that he would not attend the conclave.
In theory, any baptized male Catholic can be elected pope, but current church law says he must become a bishop before taking office; since the 15th century, the electors always have chosen a fellow cardinal.
Each vote begins with the preparation and distribution of paper ballots by two masters of ceremonies, who are among a handful of non-cardinals allowed into the chapel at the start of the session.
Then the names of nine voting cardinals are chosen at random: three to serve as “scrutineers,” or voting judges; three to collect the votes of any sick cardinals who remain in their quarters at the Domus Sanctae Marthae; and three “revisers” who check the work of the scrutineers.
The paper ballot is rectangular. On the top half is printed the Latin phrase “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” (“I elect as the most high pontiff”), and the lower half is blank for the writing of the name of the person chosen.
After all of the non-cardinals have left the chapel, the cardinals fill out their ballots secretly, legibly and fold them twice. Meanwhile, any ballots from sick cardinals are collected and brought back to the chapel.
Each cardinal then walks to the altar, holding up his folded ballot so it can be seen, and says aloud: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” He places his ballot on a plate, or paten, then slides it into an urn or large chalice.
When all of the ballots have been cast, the first scrutineer shakes the urn to mix them. He then transfers the ballots to a new urn, counting them to make sure they correspond to the number of electors.
The ballots are read out. Each of the three scrutineers examines each ballot one-by-one, with the last scrutineer calling out the name on the ballot, so all the cardinals can record the tally. The last scrutineer pierces each ballot with a needle through the word “Eligo” and places it on a thread, so they can be secured.
After the names have been read out, the votes are counted to see if someone has obtained the two-thirds majority needed for election. The revisers then double-check the work of the scrutineers for possible mistakes.
At this point, any handwritten notes made by the cardinals during the vote are collected for burning with the ballots. If the first vote of the morning or evening session is inconclusive, a second vote normally follows immediately, and the ballots from both votes are burned together at the end.
When a pope is elected, the ballots are burned immediately. The ballots are burned with chemical additives to produce white smoke when a pope has been elected; they are burned with other chemicals to produce black smoke when the voting has been inconclusive.
The conclave is organized in blocks: three days of voting, then a pause of up to one day, followed by seven ballots and a pause, then seven more ballots and a pause, and seven more ballots.
Slightly changing the rules in 2007, Pope Benedict said that after about 33 or 34 ballots without an election—about 12 or 13 days into the conclave—the cardinals must move to a run-off between the top two vote getters. The two candidates may not participate in the voting, Bishop Arrieta said, and one of them is elected only once he obtains more than two-thirds of the vote.
In his last week as pontiff, Pope Benedict issued new rules for conclaves, including a clause that allows the College of Cardinals to move up the date for the beginning of the conclave to elect his successor.
However, the cardinals cannot set the date until after the pope leaves office Feb. 28.
Pope Benedict also defined the exact penalty—automatic excommunication—that would be incurred by any non-cardinal assisting the College of Cardinals who failed to maintain absolute secrecy about the conclave proceedings.
The pope laid out the new rules in an apostolic letter issued “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) Feb. 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The Vatican released the document Feb. 25.
The changes affect the rules established in Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic constitution governing the election of popes, “Universi Dominici Gregis.”
Under the current rules, which remain in effect, upon the vacancy of the papacy, cardinals in Rome “must wait 15 full days for those who are absent” before they can enter into a conclave and begin the process of electing a new pope.
However, Pope Benedict inserted an additional provision that grants the College of Cardinals “the faculty to move up the start of the conclave if all the cardinal-electors are present,” as well as giving them the ability “to delay, if there are serious reasons, the beginning of the election for a few more days.”
However, the conclave still must begin no more than 20 days after the start of the “sede vacante.”
The date of the start of the conclave is to be decided by all the cardinals, including those over the age of 80, who participate in the daily general congregations or discussions that precede a conclave, said Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, the vice chamberlain. He will assist Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in the administration of the church during the “sede vacante.”
The cardinals must wait for every cardinal-elector to arrive or to have sent a legitimate excuse for their absence, such as for reasons of infirmity or serious illness, he told journalists.
The date of the start of the conclave will then be determined by a majority vote, that is 50 percent plus one of the cardinals present, Archbishop Celata said.
The other major change to the rules is that the pope defined the exact penalty incurred by support staff assisting the cardinal-electors during a conclave if they break the oath of secrecy about the proceedings.
The aides must swear to never lend support to or favor any outside interference in the election process. Under the old rules, the penalty for breaking the vow was to be determined by the future pope.
Instead, Pope Benedict has rewritten the oath that staff will take, stating that they are “aware that an infraction will incur the penalty of automatic excommunication.”
“The Holy Father wanted to make things immediately clear and not pass the burden of deciding the penalty on to his successor,” said Archbishop Celata.
The penalty for cardinals who break the oath of secrecy, however, remains unspecified.
The apostolic letter included several other minor changes and clarifications, including the addition of the phrase “at least” to a two-thirds majority when defining a valid election of a pope.
“For the valid election of the Roman pontiff at least two thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present,” says the revised rule.