The Conclave: What the Media and the Rest of Us Need to Know About Its History

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Mr. Baumgartner is Professor of History, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia. He is the author of Behind Locked Doors : A History of the Papal Elections (2003).

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The conclave is the longest-standing method of choosing the wielder of authority for any institution. In its setting and ceremony it appears to be thoroughly medieval, but in many of its details it is only a century old, and the next election will reflect major changes made only in 1996. The present system would be unrecognizable to those Christians of two millennia ago who chose the first bishops of Rome. The Church as a whole has changed enormously since the first century, but few aspects of it have been transformed as much as the method of electing its head.

The modern conclave is largely a result of efforts to eliminate or at least reduce the ability of outsiders, namely Roman nobles and Catholic rulers, to control the papal election. In the first three centuries the choice of bishop was a public matter for the entire Christian community of Rome. After Constantine became the first Christian emperor, the Roman emperor and in turn the Roman nobles and the Germanic Holy Roman emperors “guided” the Christian community in its choice of bishop.

By 1059, the Catholic clergy had developed a sense of being a separate class with its own interests. The issue of who would choose the pope became a point of great contention between emperor and churchmen, and therefore between laity and clergy. When Henry IV became emperor in 1056 as a six-year-old child, church reformers were ready to apply their principle of an independent clergy to the papacy. They elected one of their own as Nicholas II, who issued a decree in 1059 assigning the right to choose the pope to the cardinals. There was no secrecy mandated; the election still took place in public. Perhaps the greatest impact of the decree of 1059 was that it removed the laity, whether Roman nobles or emperors, from a meaningful role in electing the pope. Lay influence on future papal elections would continue to be present, but it was wielded only by bribing or coercing the cardinals.

Disputed elections in the 1100s demonstrated that the election decree of 1059 did not remove politics from papal elections. The decree assumed that elections would be unanimous and made no provision for when a divided College could not agree on a candidate by consensus. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council required a two-thirds majority of all voting cardinals for election. The two-thirds requirement meant that no single faction could elect a pope by itself, but it also meant that such a faction could prevent the election of someone it opposed.

Even as the papacy refined its electoral system, disputed elections continued to occur. Until 1265 the Holy Roman emperor remained convinced that God had granted him the power to name popes, resulting in antipopes in most elections between 1100 and 1265. After that the French monarchy also interfered. Clement IV’s death in December 1268 at Viterbo set the stage for an extraordinary election. When the nineteen cardinals met there, following a rule that the election take place where the late pope died, they were almost evenly divided in pro-imperial and pro-French parties. The cardinals commuted between the cathedral and their homes in the first year of the process. By late 1269, with no conclusion to the endless balloting, the cardinals allowed themselves to be locked in a palace. That failed to persuade them to agree on a pope. As the election continued into 1270, the Viterbese began to put greater pressure on the cardinals, eventually taking the roof off the palace in June. The hardship of the long election resulted in two cardinals dying and a third leaving because of ill health. Finally, in September 1271 Gregory X was elected.

After his election Gregory issued a bull requiring that the cardinals would be locked in an appropriate place, that is, in conclave, with just one servant each. Gregory mandated that all sleep in one large room with only curtains to separate their beds. Once locked in they could not communicate in any fashion with the outside until the election was over, except with the agreement of all. Only one plate of food and a bowl of soup would be provided per person, and after five days this would be reduced to bread, water, and wine. They could not draw their incomes during a conclave, nor could they conduct any business in conclave except defending the Church. Entry of tardy cardinals and reentry of those who exited for ill health were permitted. Since 1274 the conclave has changed only in details.

The system of the conclave survived the election of 1378, which created the Great Schism. After the Schism ended in 1417 with the election of Martin V at Constance, the conclave has been held in Rome with only one exception, and since 1454, in the Vatican Palace, with six exceptions. Between 1417 and 1549 the Italian city states and their powerful families largely dominated papal elections, but when Paul III died in 1549, Holy Roman emperor Charles V and French king Henry II vied to control the conclave. From the dispatches between their diplomats in Rome, letters to and from the rulers and the cardinals within the conclave, and diaries of participants, we get a clear idea of the maneuvering that went on before and during the conclave, the huge sums the monarchs spent to bribe the cardinals, and the ease with which the royal orders reached cardinals inside the Vatican. A diplomat wrote that Charles V “will know when they urinate in this Conclave.” The election of 1549-50 serves as the prime example of political interference in a conclave, not because it was more blatant than in many other conclaves, but because it was so thoroughly reported.

Efforts by the popes over the next seventy years failed to achieve the goal of preventing the monarchs from influencing the elections. Since most conclaves lasted at least a month, there was plenty of opportunity for the kings to sway the cardinals. The kings of France and Spain were heavily involved in trying to get cardinals favorable to them elected. They bribed and coerced to make their choices pope. One device they used was the exclusion. The head of the Spanish or French party in the conclave would announce that his king had excluded one or more cardinals as too hostile to his interests. Some cardinals always objected to such exclusions, but the argument that the potential injury to the Church of having a pope who was unacceptable to a major Catholic ruler overrode the right of the cardinals to make a free choice.

Angered by the blatant politicking in the conclave of 1621 that elected him, Gregory XV made a major reform of the conclave. He strengthened the rules on sealing the conclave and eliminated the practice of election by voice. The only way for the election to take place now was by written secret ballot. Gregory also required two ballots a day. He intended not only to speed up the process but also give faction leaders less time to negotiate and browbeat between ballots. Thus Gregory established the conclave rules that remained largely unchanged to 1996.

Gregory’s rules were directed toward reducing the influence of the Catholic monarchs in the conclave, but they failed to have much impact. The conclaves of the eighteenth century were both lengthy and well reported on because of the interference of the Catholic rulers, who expected to be fully informed on what was happening in the conclaves. This situation largely ended during the French Revolution. The French occupied Rome and dragged aged Pius VI to France where he died in 1799. The cardinals met in Venice to elect the next pope, as Rome was under the thumb of the French. It is the only time since 1417 that the conclave was not held in Rome. After 1815 the papacy was determined to restore everything as closely as possible to pre-1789 conditions, but the royal exclusion was part of the old system, and it reappeared in 1823, when Spain vetoed the leading candidate.

Fifty years later the papacy lost control the Papal States. In 1876 Pius IX, convinced that the new Italian state would try to control the next conclave in order to elect a pope who would concede rule of Rome, mandated enhanced secrecy during the conclave to prevent Italy from influencing the election. This reduced information about the conclave that elected Leo XIII the same year. The conclave after Leo died in 1903 is notorious for the Austrian veto of Cardinal Rampolla. Whether he would have been elected without it cannot be said, but it threw the election to Cardinal Sarto, who became Pius X. Rampolla’s exclusion offended Pius, because it was so blatant an act of secular interference. He mandated excommunication for anyone attempting to use it again. The extensive newspaper stories on the conclave that quickly appeared also scandalized Pius, who issued a decree that reinforced the obligation of total secrecy and made it permanent. Its major point was excommunication for anyone who revealed what happened in a conclave at any time in future without papal permission.

Thus, at a time when political interference, the original reason for secrecy, was ending, enforcement of secrecy was made all the stronger, and it has been well obeyed since 1903. Now journalists, who offended by their persistent and often devious efforts to get access to the conclave, were the ones who were seeking to find out what was going on; and the reaction of the popes has been to keep them at bay by emphasizing the obligation of secrecy. Consequently secrecy during and after conclaves has been rigorously enforced, and we know less about the conclaves of the twentieth century than we do about those of the sixteenth century.

John Paul II issued a new constitution on the conclave in 1996, which suggests that the papacy was no longer worried about outside political interference in papal elections. The harsh conditions of having tiny makeshift cells in airless Vatican Palace, which a cardinal described as like being in a tomb in 1978, have given way to the comfortable rooms in the new Domus Sanctae Marthae, although voting will still take place in the cramped Sistine Chapel. More significant a change involves the options that the cardinals now have, if after 21 ballots no one has gained the traditional 2/3 majority. By simple majority decision they can choose to continue in the same manner, or reduce the required majority to one more than half of the voters, or vote only on the two men who in the preceding scrutiny had received the greatest number of votes. In this last format a majority of one is needed to elect a pope.

The new procedure could dramatically change the dynamics of papal elections. If a group of cardinals close to a majority of the electors is adamant about getting its candidate elected, it can simply hold out until the number needed for victory may change. Had this procedure been in effect in the past, the history of the papacy would have been far different. Clearly the political situation for the papacy in the early twenty-first century is far different than in the past, when monarchs interfered openly in the elections, but there is no certainty that similar circumstances will not reappear in the future. A protracted election that brings into play the new rule on reducing the required majority would reveal that the cardinals were indeed badly divided. Will a pope elected by a simple majority of the cardinals instead of the traditional two-thirds hold the loyalty of the large number of Catholics likely to be disappointed in such a choice? If the two-thirds rule is waived, a significant part of the Church might well refuse to accept a pope elected in that way. Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers rejected the popes elected in 1978 on the grounds that the absence of the cardinals over eighty made the elections invalid. That consideration might persuade the College not to exercise the option of using the simple majority, especially since the conditions of the next conclave will not be as severe as before.

The system that has been in place has served the Church well since the end of the Great Schism. There has not been a serious challenge to the legitimacy of any pope since Martin V was elected in 1417. No other system of governance comes close to matching that record. Too much tinkering with the electoral system would inevitably call it into question. Much of the fascination of the coming conclave will involve seeing how the new procedures play out. The changes wrought by John Paul are almost revolutionary in an institution so controlled by tradition as the papacy has been. Only time will tell whether they will benefit it.

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