Conclaves and papal elections: what, why, how, who?

In the early and medieval church the practice had evolved by which the leader of the church, the local bishop (episcopos – ‘overseer’ in Greek) had come to his office by election at the hands of the local clergy and people. “Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people;” [‘Apostolic Tradition’ of the third century]. This tradition was reinforced by the reform pope, Leo IX, in 1049 at the Council of Rheims which decreed: ‘that no one should be advanced to the rule of a church without election by clergy and people’. Thus a tradition had evolved into law. There was then great need of this law since it had often happened that local rulers and kings for some time had pretty much considered positions in the church of their area as under their authority and control and so they could do with these as they wished. The call for reform of the church in the eleventh century was phrased in terms of restoring the Libertas Ecclesiae (the liberty of the church) which meant ‘free election’ rather than appointment by the powerful secular rulers. It also resonated against the common abuse whereby someone who wanted to be appointed to a particular office attained his goal by paying off the ruler. This evil practice of buying a position in the church had come to be known as simony.

In the decades after the council at Rheims leaders in the church reform movement became popes, e.g., Alexander II, Gregory VII. In the previous centuries on numerous occasions a king or emperor had deposed popes and placed on of his own followers or relatives in that position. At other times the fight over control of this office had led to disputes and battles between factions and powerful families in Rome. Alexander II as reformer had decreed in 1059 that the choice of a pope (the bishop of Rome) was to be done by an election. But who was to do the election? This decree said that a particular group had this function; they were called the ‘cardinals’, or ‘hinges,’ the ones who helped the church at Rome and the pope, move work and function. This office had originated in the bishops who presided over the nearby cities around Rome who worked with the bishop of Rome. Later others were added to the ‘college of cardinals’ in differing ranks. These electors were to make their decision and obtain the consent of the people.

Needless to say this process did not always go smoothly and so the church benefited from the growth and spread of Roman law and then church law at the universities. It thus had the resource of legal scholars to assist in dealing with the problems that arose. One very practical response was that the papal electors were to be shielded from outside influence: crowds, armed retainers of powerful families or rulers, or even screaming mobs. The solution was a conclave (‘cum clave’ – with a key): the cardinals were to be secluded and protected by being placed under lock and key by an official appointed to this task. This job could become an exasperating one. At one point later in the thirteenth century the cardinals in the conclave could not agree on a candidate for election and were in no hurry to move on to a decision. The poor man in charge was at his wit’s end as the months went by with the cardinals disagreeing but still receiving their revenues from their positions in the church. So he decided to resort to some moral suasion. First he reduced the food supply that went to them, moving toward a diet of bread and water. When this did not work, he went further and proceeded to take the roof off the building where the conclave was held, so that if service to the church and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit would not induce them to do their duty and elect a pope, the elements of the weather might well move them. And it worked.

Another problem that arose was how was this election to work? What if one party had the votes of the larger number of participants but another was chosen by the more important, more senior, more leading members? (And this happened several times.) An old tradition had spoken of election by the ‘maior et sanior pars’ (the larger and wiser part). The legal minds of the day began to transfer to the papal election the principles that were current in local cathedrals and major churches and their election of the bishop or head of the church. Thus the decision was that if two-thirds of the canons of a cathedral (the canons were the clergy holding positions at the cathedral and so formed the cathedral chapter), voted for a candidate, he was validly elected. This was again reinforcing the idea of authority coming to a person in an office by election. The later medieval canonists (commentators and teachers of church law) even said that if such a canonical election had occurred by the chapter and the pope had also named a candidate to be bishop of that church, then the pope should withdraw his nomination in order to protect and support the ‘liberty of the church’ in electing its leaders. This principle of two-thirds vote in papal elections lasted until quite recently. Pope John Paul II had written that election could be by simple majority but Pope Benedict XVI returned it to the two-thirds but added a codicil that made the election require two-thirds vote plus one. The idea behind this change was that if a candidate voted for himself (why would he not?), his vote should not constitute part of the two-thirds requirement. You could not vote yourself in!

So we have a tradition evolve: the cardinals, acting in the name of the whole church and so representing all, vote to elect a pope. But who could be a cardinal? By tradition and custom any adult male could be a cardinal, and even this term “adult” was stretched when in the age of the Renaissance some fairly young members of competing, mostly Italian, families were promoted to this position by a pope who was a relative. Interestingly in the mid-19th century the cardinal who was the papal Secretary of State was a married man with children. Only in the recent decades was it stipulated that a person was to be made an archbishop when he was named to the College of Cardinals. Thus the prominent American Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles, was consecrated as a archbishop when he was made a cardinal a few years ago.

Who could the cardinals elect as pope? Again the field was open to any adult, unmarried male in good standing in the church. In the medieval era they elected the pope who became Pope Innocent III who was only 37 when he became pope in 1198. A century later they elected a man who was around 70 and he outlived them all as he went on as Pope John XXII until he was about 90. In 1417 at the Council of Constance they (the council fathers) acted to end the Great Western Schism by removing the three papal claimants. They (the cardinals and the council) then elected Odo Colonna who took the name Martin V since he was elected on St. Martin’s Day (November 11, 1417). Once he was elected and accepted the election, he was legally pope and so had the full power of jurisdiction (plena potestas), i.e., he could issue decrees, give judgments, settle disputed, preside at the council, etc. He then had all the powers that were associated with having jurisdiction by holding the highest office. However he was also to be the bishop of Rome. Hence this issue had to be dealt with and so Odo Colonna after his election as Martin V was ordained as a priest on one day, next consecrated as bishop and then lastly installed as pope over the several days. But he was legally pope and had jurisdictional authority before he was a priest or bishop.

A couple of final points on the history or elections in the church and candidates. After the American revolution, it did not seem proper for the American Catholic Church to be still subject to an Apostolic Administrator located in England. (It took several more generations before any Catholic bishops were allowed in England which was why the title had been Apostolic Administrator). Therefore it was decided that the American Catholic Church should have its own bishop and the pope selected John Carroll (from the noted Carroll family of Maryland) as the first bishop of Baltimore. The Roman curia had canvassed the American government’s representative in France, the Deist Benjamin Franklin, on who would be an acceptable candidate. Franklin said that the U.S. government would stay out of this issue but he did think that Carroll would be a good man for the job. John Carroll himself when receiving the nomination from Rome as first Catholic bishop in the USA would not accept it until he had been elected by the clergy and people so the principle of election by the clergy and people still had echoes and prominence in our land at that time. Unfortunately his successor, the second bishop of Baltimore, was an aristocratic French emigre who had fled France in fear of the French Revolution who wanted nothing to do with that kind of democratic claptrap and so the tradition died.

In the early 20th century when the cardinals were in conclave to elect a new pope and seemed to be on the verge of choosing a particular candidate, one of the cardinals who was from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, invoked the old, long dormant right of the Holy Roman Emperor to approve the papal electee. Clearly the Austro-Hungarian world saw itself as the successor to the Holy Roman Empire going back to the days of Charlemagne from 800 on and so issued this veto and another cardinal was elected as pope. This was the last such veto to be allowed. Lest this anachronism seem to be an unique anomaly in the history of the church. One need only consult the old Missale Romanum (the Roman Missal or Mass book) from the 1950s when the Mass was still said in Latin. There one would find in the prayers to be said in the Good Friday service an oddity. These prayers lasted down to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s which reformed these prayers and introduced the use of the vernacular. Prior to that change of only 50 years ago, Catholics in the United States prayed every Good Friday that they might be restored to rule by the Holy Roman Emperor. That is one prayed as late as 1960 that the Holy Roman Empire which Napoleon had done away with in 1806 (replaced by the Austrian empire) would hold sway over our land. I think it is fair to say that we can all agree that it is a good thing that not all our prayers are answered!

Thomas E. Morrissey is an emeritus professor at SUNY Fredonia.