After more than a quarter-century, cardinals from around the world are once again gathering in the Vatican, soon to be sequestered “in conclave” for as long as it takes to elect a new pope. We eagerly await the results but will have no information about what happens during the conclave, because the cardinals are sworn to absolute secrecy. The whole affair, at least as viewed from the outside, will be dignified and orderly, just what we should expect from such a serious undertaking. Our present procedures evolved, however, precisely because the election of the pope was not always dignified and orderly. Often it was anything but that.
According to ancient tradition, the bishop of Rome, like all bishops, was elected by the clergy and people of the city over which he was to preside, or by the clergy with the acquiescence of the people. We have a striking example of this tradition in the well-known account of the choice of St. Ambrose as bishop of Milan in 373 or 374. As the clergy and people assembled for the election of the next bishop, Ambrose, then the chief civil administrator of the region, was present to make sure the election proceeded peacefully. After he addressed the assembly, he was greeted with the cry that he be the bishop, though he was at that point not even baptized. “Ambrose bishop!” shouted the crowd. He acquiesced to the acclamation to become one of the outstanding churchmen of a remarkable generation that included St. Jerome and St. Augustine.
Not all papal elections came off so easily. The election of St. Damasus, a contemporary of Ambrose, was rough and bloody. Upon the death of Damasus’ predecessor, rioting broke out in Rome. Damasus and a man named Ursinus were chosen by two different factions among the clergy. The civil authorities, who favored Damasus, had to intervene to settle the dispute, but not before some thugs who supported Damasus had attacked partisans of his rival gathered in what would become the basilica of St. Mary Major. They left over 100 dead before finishing their rampage. Damasus, who had an extraordinarily long pontificate of 18 years, went on to become one of the most important popes in this period of church history, especially remembered because of his friendship with St. Jerome, whom he encouraged in his translation of the Bible into Latin.
The election of the bishop of Rome, because of the political and emblematic importance of that see, continued to be especially troubled well into the modern period. While many elections took place without incident, many others were marred by rivalries among contending parties and led to confusion about who was rightly to be considered the bishop of Rome. Although it was agreed that the election lay in the hands of the “clergy and people” of the city of Rome, lack of clear procedures made manipulation of the election easy for those who wanted to seize for themselves or their families this prestigious and lucrative prize.
In this regard, the first half of the 10th century was particularly troublesome and sordid as control of the election fell into the hands of the local nobility in and around the city of Rome. Early in the century a woman named Marozia emerged as the virtual ruler of the city. She saw to the deposition of Pope John X, who in 928 was thrown into the prison of the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was almost certainly murdered a short while later. Marozia then secured the election of her candidates—Pope Leo VI and, upon his death, Pope Stephen VII. When Stephen died around 931, she gained the bishopric for her son, John XI, a young man probably only in his late teens. Only a year later Marozia fell from power at the hands of Alberic II, prince of Rome, who then controlled the election of the next five popes, the last of whom, John XII, was his illegitimate son. John XII was 18 or 19 when elected and would soon be known for what one historian calls “his uninhibitedly debauched life.”
Meanwhile a strong secular ruler, Otto I, emerged in the territories of northeastern Europe that would eventually be known as the Holy Roman Empire. John XII, at danger from political and military rivals after the death of his powerful father, was forced to ask Otto to help him. Otto agreed, swore to protect the pope, came to Italy with his army, and on Feb. 2, 962, was crowned emperor by John XII in St. Peter’s Basilica. First off, Otto made sure that a synod admonished the pope to reform his lifestyle. Then he insisted that henceforth the freely elected pope must, before his ordination as bishop of Rome, pronounce an oath of loyalty to the emperor in recognition of the emperor’s role as overlord of the papal state. Thus began a long era of strong imperial, that is “German,” concern for the bishopric of Rome, the holder of which was—by reason of the oath—a vassal of the emperor.
One of the greatest turning points in the history of papal elections occurred in the middle of the next century. There were three men claiming to be the legitimate pope. In 1046 the devout Emperor Henry III entered central Italy determined to settle the dispute and to take measures to reform the church, especially the bishopric of Rome. He oversaw the deposition of each of the three rivals and then nominated Siger of Bamberg as pope. Siger died shortly thereafter, as did the man Henry designated as his successor. Then, in 1049, Henry nominated his cousin, Bruno of Toul, who took the name Leo IX. He was the first of the reforming popes who promoted the great movement known as the Gregorian Reform.
The Gregorian Reform was a complex phenomenon, but at its heart was the determination to reinstate the old canonical legislation regarding the free and proper election of bishops by the local clergy. Nowhere was this reform more badly needed than in Rome itself, and only a drastic measure like Henry’s interventions could have lifted that situation out of the morass into which it had sunk. Henry nominated Leo’s successor, but when Henry died in 1056 the elections in Rome threatened once again to fall into chaos. That is precisely what happened in 1059, when two claimants emerged: Nicholas II, a reformer, and Benedict X, supported by the Roman nobility.
With the help of military force supplied by friendly parties, Nicholas prevailed. His great achievement was to issue in 1059 the decree regulating papal elections that is the nucleus out of which the present system developed. It put the nomination of the pope in the hands of cardinal bishops, assisted by cardinal priests, whose choice would be ratified by the rest of the clergy and people of the city. There had, of course, previously been efforts, largely unsuccessful, to provide for the orderly and canonical election of the pope, but this decree of Nicholas II was the first to establish an administrative machinery to accomplish it.
What are cardinals, and why were they chosen to be the key players in the election process? The original meaning of the term is disputed, and much of the history is murky. But it is clear that by the seventh century the priests assigned to some 25 of the principal parishes in Rome were called cardinals. Especially because it was deemed fitting for the liturgies of the great basilicas like St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Peter’s to be presided over by bishops, it early became customary for the bishops from the small cities near Rome like Ostia and Palestrina to perform that function regularly. With the beginning of the Gregorian Reform these bishops started to take a more active role in assisting the pope in other ways as well. Although they retained their own sees, they could, by reason of the roles they were increasingly playing in Rome, be considered members of the clergy of the church of Rome. (They were called cardinal bishops possibly because they were quasi-incardinated into the diocese of Rome.)
Thus even for the cardinal bishops, those “outsiders,” the tradition of election by the city’s clergy was retained by a kind of legal fiction. That same fiction prevails to this day, for the cardinals are members of “the holy Roman church” (sanctae Romanae ecclesiae, abbreviated S.R.E.), that is, the church of the city of Rome. For that reason each of them has a “titular” church in the city assigned to him, as if he were regularly officiating there. The reason the decree of 1059 singled out the “cardinal bishops” for the principal role in the election seems to have been twofold. First, since Rome had no metropolitan see superior to it to approve the election, the cardinal bishops discharged that office in a somewhat different way, by actually electing the pope. Second, at the time of the decree the seven “suburban” bishoprics were more or less in the hands of the reformers. The decree, besides providing the basic blueprint still in effect today, also raised the rather obscure office of cardinal to one of strategic importance for the future of the church. Thus, cardinals as we know them are a creation of the 11th century.
For the next several centuries, the decree of 1059 was unsuccessful in putting an end to disputed elections, and popes and antipopes continued to contend for the See of Peter. The most notorious of these disputes was the Great Western Schism (1376-1415), when for a half-century two sets of papal claimants, and then three, simultaneously and stubbornly insisted on their own legitimacy. The Council of Constance finally put an end to the scandal by securing the resignation of two of the claimants, deposing the third, and proceeding to the election of a new pope, Martin V, who won universal acceptance.
Even aside from such spectacular eventualities, the cardinals sometimes took an inordinate amount of time—months, even years—for their deliberations. One reason for these delays was the provision made by Pope Alexander III in 1179 that a two-thirds majority of votes was required for a valid election, a measure significantly modified only in 1996 by Pope John Paul II. In any case, the long deliberations led to the “conclave.” The word means, as we are so often told, “under lock and key,” from the two Latin words con (with) and clave (key). When in 1268 Pope Clement IV died in Viterbo, the cardinals assembled there to elect his successor. The election dragged on for three years. As public indignation mounted in Viterbo, the civil authorities first locked the cardinals in the papal palace; when that did not work, they put them on an almost starvation diet. (Legend has it that they also finally removed the roof.) Although not altogether without precedent, this was the first instance of a conclave in the strict sense—a papal election sequestered from the outside world.
Gregory X, the pope elected at this first conclave, published a bull in 1274 that made the strict seclusion of the cardinals mandatory in order to promote a more rapid election. He also obliged the electors to absolute secrecy about their deliberations. The conclave thus became official. The measure was, however, intermittently suspended by popes, with bad results. It took the cardinals 27 months, for instance, to elect in 1294 a successor to Pope Nicholas IV and over two years to elect in 1316 the successor to Clement V. Nonetheless, the practice of “conclave” gradually became normative, and as it did, such protracted deliberations disappeared.
In the Middle Ages elections were held in the city where the pope died. Popes were often absent from Rome, usually in one of the nearby towns in the Papal States like Viterbo or Orvieto. The last pope to be elected outside Rome (until Pius VII, in Venice in 1800) was Martin V during the Council at Constance. Since then all conclaves have taken place in Rome—in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, then in different chapels in the Vatican and, finally, in the Sistine Chapel, erected by Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84).
The regulations imposing secrecy were often reiterated, but breaches were common. From Pope Pius II himself (1458-64) we have a candid and amusing account of his election in his autobiography, published in English under the title Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope. Beginning in the 15th century, the reports sent home by ambassadors of foreign powers in Rome contained detailed information about the number of ballots taken, the votes different candidates received and similar matters. Pius IV in 1562 had some success in curtailing these violations of confidentiality, but only in more recent elections have the conclaves been almost hermetically sealed. The concern in the most recent elections has been that electronic listening devices might be hidden in strategic places during the conclave, so those areas have to be “swept” to guard against this.
In the later part of the 15th century, word was leaked, in fact, that several popes were elected simply because they or their promoters were able to buy votes in the College of Cardinals, an abuse that climaxed notoriously with the election in 1494 of Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia. A few years after Alexander died, Pope Julius II, though himself a beneficiary of the system, published a strong bull forbidding the practice. This bull seems to have been by and large effective.
Civil rulers, as we have seen, played an important role— sometimes detrimental, sometimes beneficial—in the election of the Roman pontiff. Beginning in the 16th century that role took a new form. Emperor Charles V seems to have been the first to draw up a list of acceptable and unacceptable candidates, which he provided to cardinals friendly to him. In 1590 his son, King Philip II of Spain, made public a list of seven acceptable candidates, implying he would contest the election of anyone not on the list. Gregory XIV was elected from among those favored by Philip.
Thus developed the so-called veto power, or power of exclusion, that by the late 17th century the thrones of France, Austria and Spain were claiming as an “immemorial right.” This right allowed each of them, through a designated cardinal in the papal conclave, to veto one candidate when he seemed within striking distance of winning the election. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the veto was occasionally wielded, but more often by indirection and threat than by outright action. The attempt in 1903 by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria to block the election of Cardinal Rampolla, however, was the last straw. The new pope, Pius X, put an absolute end to the practice, forbidding any and every “civil veto...even if expressed in the form of a simple wish.”
The most recent regulations concerning papal election were promulgated in 1996 by Pope John Paul II. These regulations built on similar ones issued in 1975 by Paul VI, which in turn built on regulations stipulated by Pius XII in 1945. Pius XI had made his own adjustments in 1922. (I have already mentioned Pius X’s regulations but not those of Leo XIII in 1882 or those of Pius IX in 1871 and 1878.) In 1808 Pius VII basically confirmed certain provisions decreed by Pius VI in 1782 and 1789. It has not been easy, one infers, to tie up all loose ends and forestall all possible abuses.
Important though these documents from the last several centuries are, they do not challenge two basic elements that emerged between the 11th and 13th centuries and that have persisted up to the present: cardinals and conclave. Those are the two pillars on which the system rests. The election process retains, however, vestiges that are even older. The fundamental tradition going back to the earliest centuries of Christianity is, as already mentioned, that bishops are elected by the clergy and the people of their city. In a symbolic way, that is what will happen shortly in Rome. The new pope will be elected by members of the clergy of the diocese of Rome—by cardinals of “the holy Roman church.” When he appears afterward on the balcony of St. Peter’s, loud cheers will rise from the people, who, whether they realize it or not, will be acquiescing in the results of the election. Here we have a clear instance of how the familiar French maxim must sometimes be turned around: the more things remain the same, the more they have changed.