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.
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.
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.
number of Cardinal Electors is set at 135. As of April 2005, there were 117 eligible
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 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
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.
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."
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
A Two Step Reform Process
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.
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,
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.