Monday, May 06, 2024

Why cardinals are locked into the conclave

New cardinals make conclave handicapping easier … and much harder

"Extra omnes!" - "All out!" 

These words from the master of ceremonies mark the beginning of what is probably the most exclusive election process in the world, that for a new head of the Roman Catholic Church. 

The so-called conclave is no longer quite as secretive as it used to be since journalists and the Pope himself have reported on it. The procedure was laid down by Pope Gregory X in 1274 at the Second Council of Lyon, which began on 7 May.

From the 11th to the 13th century, the Roman papacy had developed a great deal of power. As a result, the See of Peter was targeted by Roman aristocratic families due to its influence and revenue opportunities. 

On the other hand, the emperor and the kings of France and Naples wanted to have a say. 

As a result, papal elections lasted for months. Strong personalities and the small number of the college made the elections even more difficult.

Papal election in the tradition of Italian cities

The papal election of 1241 is considered to be the first conclave ever held. As the ten cardinals were divided between the papacy and the emperor, the Roman senator Matteo Rosso Orsini locked the churchmen in a dilapidated ancient palace. 

The idea for this came to him from the practice of Italian city communes, whose leaders occupied their offices behind closed doors, free from external influences and internal party disputes.

However, Coelestine IV, who was elected virtually under prison conditions and weakened as a result, only reigned for around two weeks. His successor Innocent IV, elected in 1243 after almost two years of vacancy, even had to flee to Lyon due to the dispute with the emperor's loyalists. 

The turmoil following the death of Clement IV was the final straw. at the end of November 1268 in Viterbo, north of Rome.

As usual, the College of Cardinals met at the place of the Pope's death. When the eminences had still not reached an agreement after a year and a half, the "Capitano del popolo" of Viterbo locked them in the bishop's palace in June 1270 and had the roof covered. 

The summer heat and rain were to remind the lords of the urgency of their task. It is said that the prelates built wooden huts to protect themselves against the rigours of the weather.

Nevertheless, the longest sede vacante in history - it lasted 33 months and two days - only ended on 1 September 1271: with the election of the compromise candidate Tebaldo Visconti, himself not a cardinal - not even a priest. Gregory X, as he called himself, had learnt his lesson from the pressure exerted by the secular authorities of Rome and Viterbo, for whom all too long vacancies of the see were also economically damaging. 

And immediately prepared his decree "Ubi periculum" (Where there is danger), which he presented to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274.

Its key feature: the electors were locked up (cum clave - with a key) until they had agreed on a new pope. No cardinal was allowed to leave the conclave unless he fell seriously ill. Entrances and exits were guarded. Each cardinal was allowed to take one or a maximum of two servants with him.

If no election had been made after three days, there were only two meals a day for five days, followed by bread, water and wine alone. However, the most important means of pressure to speed up the election of a pope was financial. 

Gregory ordered that the cardinals should no longer be paid a salary during the conclave. He had taken note of the widespread criticism of the personal enrichment of the purple bearers during the sede vacante.

Three variants for the papal election process

The external circumstances of a papal election were thus regulated, but not the procedure itself. 

There were traditionally three variants: 1) "Per scrutinium", three tellers collected all the votes in secret and then announced the result. This is still largely the case today. 2) "Per compromissum", the cardinals present transferred the right to vote to an electoral committee, also consisting of three people - and had to grudgingly bow to its decision if necessary. 3) It was rather rare for the new pope to be elected "quasi per inspirationem" by the cardinals present by general consent.

A few weeks ago, the Italian church historian Alberto Melloni called for a reform of the conclave. 

There is a danger that "a belligerent country or a major information technology power" could interfere on a massive scale, as was the case with papal elections in the Middle Ages. 

After all, even imprisoned cardinals are not immune to external influences.