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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyHow is the pope selected?

For centuries the pope has been elected to his office. For the past 750 years or so, the election takes place in what is known as a “conclave.” This institution as we now know it was formally decreed during the second Council of Lyons in 1274 in reaction to the election of Pope Gregory X in Viterbo (1271) which took three years to complete, and where eventually the cardinal electors were locked in by the people — con clave (“with a key”) — until they completed their task.

The procedure has served the church well over the years. There seems to be no overriding reason to change the institution itself. However, the actual membership has changed over time. Until the papacy of St. John XXIII, the number of cardinals was limited to 70. This was gradually increased, taking into account the growth of the church in many parts of the world.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI restricted the voting rights of cardinals: only those who were under the age of 80 were henceforth allowed to vote. This rule is still in effect. In 1973, he increased the number of eligible voters to 120.

St. John Paul II revised the rules in 1996; one of the major preoccupations at that time was the preservation of secrecy and the avoidance of electronic eavesdropping during the proceedings. Then, on June 11, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI revised the norms to require a two-thirds plus one majority vote for election. Furthermore, on Feb. 22, 2013, after his resignation from the pontificate, a few minor modifications were introduced into the rules.

Instead of residing in makeshift cells during the conclave, the cardinals now reside in the St. Martha’s House during the conclave and are transported to the Sistine Chapel where the actual voting takes place.

One of the most popular features of the conclave is the method whereby it is announced to the world that a new pope has been elected. The centuries-old method of “smoke signals” is still used. Black smoke from the chimney in the chapel, where the ballots are burned and mixed with straw, indicates that no election has taken place. White smoke indicates that an election has been successful. Shortly thereafter, the bells of St. Peter’s are rung and the new pontiff is presented to the world and gives his first blessing to the faithful.

Technically, any baptized male could be elected pope. Canon 332.1 of the code provides that if he is already a bishop, he receives the supreme authority in the church from the moment he accepts the election. If he is not already a bishop, then he is to be ordained immediately.

For many centuries it was traditional for the pope to be Italian. However, this tradition was broken in 1978 when St. John Paul II was elected. There is no provision in the law as to the nationality of the pope.

Once elected, the pope holds the office for life, unless he freely wishes to resign the office at some point in time.

There used to be the ceremony of the coronation of the pope, shortly after the election. This was changed when John Paul I became pope. Rather, the texts now speak of the solemn inauguration of the petrine ministry, even though, from the moment of election, the pope has full authority to lead and govern the church. At his inauguration, he receives the pallium (symbol of authority) as well as what is known as the fisherman’s ring, which is proper to each pope and is used to authenticate and seal certain important documents.

The legislation as we now have it is purely disciplinary, and could change. Pope Paul VI had even indicated that he would like to introduce certain changes in the membership, but did not proceed with the plan.

Some changes could easily be integrated into the structure. For instance, a pope might decide that all the Oriental patriarchs and major archbishops are also to be papal electors. A more radical approach might be to have the presidents of the various conferences of bishops become the electors, rather than having cardinals carry out this task. The numbers would be around the same and this would ensure a more global representation.

While tradition has it that the electors must be clerics (representing the parish priests of Rome), it would even be possible, although not probable, some day to imagine another approach.

Interestingly enough, the pope, as bishop of Rome, is one of the few bishops in the Latin church who is still elected. There are still some places in Europe (Germany and Switzerland) where elections take place, but these require confirmation of the pope before becoming effective. In the Eastern Catholic churches, the practice of electing bishops in synods is quite common.

There is nothing in doctrine that would prevent the election of other bishops. However, experience throughout the centuries has shown that there can be undue influence exerted by political authorities to have such and such a person elected. In some cases, there are concordats or international agreements in place which give the head of state a role to play in such appointments. However, canon 377 of the present code is very clear in this regard: “For the future, no rights or privilegess of election, appointment, presentation or designation of bishops are conceded to civil authorities.”

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 28th article in a series.