Bible | Movies | Books | People | Hot Topics | Holidays | Humor | Gallery | Sermons | Prayer | Quizzes | Communities | God | FAQ | Links




A Democracy Movement in the Church

Here are the present rules. Is more democracy possible?

Popes are elected by the College of Cardinals meeting in the Sistine Chapel at a gathering called a Conclave. This has not always been the case. For several centuries, Popes were elected by popular vote of the citizens of Rome. Over time the rules have changed. Could a reform movement bring democracy to the world's largest church? Before addressing that question, consider the present rules.

Voting Rules Updated in 1975 and 1996

Since 1975 only those cardinals under the age of 80 are entitled to vote, though those over 80 do participate in meetings that are held prior to the actual balloting.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II further modified the rules for electing his successor.

As has been the case in the past, voting is by written, secret ballot. The new rule allows for election of a pope by simple majority if a leading candidate cannot attain a two-thirds majority after 30 rounds of voting.

Not only is the voting by secret ballot, Cardinals are sworn to secrecy concerning their deliberations, and during the Conclave, communication with the outside world is largely cut off. The Cardinals are housed in the "Domus Sanctae Marthae," hotel-style accommodation in Vatican City, and confine their activity to the Sistine Chapel and these accommodations during the entire Conclave.

The maximum number of Cardinal Electors is set at 135. As of April 2005, there were 117 eligible Electors.

The Interregnum

The period between the death of a Pope and the election of his successor is referred to as "The Interregnum." During this period, the church is administered by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, an office held in 2005 by Cardinal Camerlengo. He also heads a team of three Cardinals who administer the voting process.

The Conclave

The Cardinals must take an oath when they first enter the Conclave that they will follow the rules set down by the Pope and that they will maintain absolute secrecy about the voting, as well as their deliberations which are often intense.

For the balloting itself, the Cardinals all take seats inside the Sistine Chapel indicating their preference on a paper ballot which they personally bring forward to the altar, placing the ballot in a chalice.

The votes are then counted by the Cardinal Camerlengo and his three assistants. Each assistant reads the name aloud, writes it down on a tally sheet and then passes it to the next assistant. The third assistant runs a needle and thread through the center of each ballot to join them together. The ballots are then burned. If a new Pope has been elected, the papers are burned with chemicals to give off white smoke. Otherwise, they give off black smoke, so that the world will know whether a Pope has been elected.

The cardinals vote on the afternoon of the first day of the Conclave, then twice each morning and once each afternoon.

Following the election

Once a Cardinal has received the required number of votes, the Dean of the College of Cardinals asks him if he accepts election and by what name he wishes to be called. On giving assent, and choosing his name, the Cardinal immediately becomes Pontifex Maximus, the Supreme Patriarch. All the Cardinals then pledge their obedience to the new Pope.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then steps onto the main balcony of the Vatican and declares: "Habemus Papam!" "We have a Pope!" The Pope immediately appears on the balcony and delivers his first Apostolic Blessing.

Inauguration Ceremony: For a Servant Rather than a King

Before the Cardinals return to their home countries, a formal ceremony of inauguration is held. In the past, the Pope would have been carried around St. Peter's Square on a throne and have the Papal Tiara placed on his head in an elaborate coronation ceremony. John Paul II followed his predecessor in eliminating this vestige of the Pope's role as virtual King, and instead emphasized the Pope's role as a servant leader, obedient to God and rendering leadership for the benefit of all of God's people.

Could the Election of the Pope be truly democratic?

Since the College of Cardinals is entirely appointed by the Pope, it is a self-perpetuating body. (Imagine the President of the United States being able to appoint members of Congress, who in turn would elect the next President.) Catholic laity, including women, priests, and even bishops have no vote. This has not always been the case. The Pope was originally elected by popular vote of the people of Rome, but during medieval times the right to vote for the Pope was gradually restricted until only cardinals possessed it.

A future Pope could substitute another body of electors for the College of Cardinals. There have been proposals to have the Synod of Bishops perform this function. The Pope might also suggest an even more democratic system in which his successor was elected by delegates chosen by popular vote in various geographical regions, as is the current practice of many other Christian denominations.

Would Catholics support democratic reform in the Church? There is significant evidence that they would.

A major survey of Catholic laity in six countries conducted by Gallup several years ago revealed significant support for democratic reform within the Church. The survey was carefully studied by Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest and sociologist at the University of Chicago, and Michael Hout, a sociologist teaching at UCLA, Berkeley.

In response to several questions about what they would look for in a new pope, the results were as follows:

"78% of the respondents supported the idea of a Pope who would choose some of his advisors from ordinary lay people; 69% said they would rather have a Pope who would permit married priests; the same proportion opted for a Pope who was more concerned about the life of ordinary people; 65% hoped for a Pope who would permit the laity and clergy to choose their own bishop; the same proportion supported a Pope who would approve the ordination of women and a similar proportion approved a Pope who would be more open to change. Finally, 58% opted for a Pope who would grant more decision making power to the American bishops."

As indicated above, canon law would permit a future Pope to modify the election process once again. He could substitute another body, such as the Synod of Bishops, for the College of Cardinals. The Pope might also suggest an even more democratic system in which his successor was elected by delegates chosen by popular vote in various geographical regions, as is the current practice in several other Christian denominations.

A Two Step Reform Process

Combine two of the reforms that have wide support within the church and you have a far more representative process. Were bishops popularly elected by the clergy and laity of each diocese and were the next Pope to identify a representative body of Bishops rather than the College of Cardinal as the Electors, those two steps would restore a large measure of democracy to the church, while avoiding unwieldy aspects of a direct popular vote.

For the article by Father Greeley and Dr. Hout.
Catholic Laity and Reform in the Church: A Six Nation Study

For more on the papacy

Is the Pope infallible?

Charles Henderson

You are invited to join our Forum
and discuss any issues
pertaining to faith or the search for it.
Your comments are published here instantly.
CrossCurrents Forum

(To see the current list of topics your browser must allow Active Content)

CrossCurrents
Recent Discussions

Please take a moment to let us know you were here!  
Just send us an email to subscribe to our free newsletter.


For those who prefer a form: Click here to subscribe.

If you want to talk with someone in person,  please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.