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How is a pope elected? How do the faithful know that a papal election is valid? Who can be elected? Who is typically elected?

Response: As a matter of faith, the Church teaches that as long as the Church exists God will provide a valid succession of popes. As the First Vatican Council dogmatically pronounced:

Therefore, if anyone says that it is not according to the institution of Christ our Lord himself, that is, by divine law, that St. Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or if anyone says that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of St. Peter in the same primacy, anathema sit [i.e., “Let him be accursed.]

Legally, anyone who can receive the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders can be elected. Typically, however, the pope is chosen from among the Church’s cardinals.

Discussion: God founded the Church and swore to sustain it until the end of time, in part, by sustaining the papacy. An enduring papacy is one of the fruits of the Church “indefectibility," that is, that the Catholic Church will not perish nor otherwise fundamentally change.

While God guarantees that a validly elected pope will succeed a deceased one, He did not prescribe a specific process by which papal vacancies are filled. Consequently, the Church has employed different methods to select or elect popes. Popes serve as the Bishop of Rome, and some early popes, including St. Peter, may have appointed their successors. If so, it soon came to be in the Early Church that the clergy and lay people of Rome elected the pope, as clergy and lay people in other dioceses chose their bishops.

Political leaders have also influenced the election of popes. Byzantine emperors beginning with Justinian I (527-65) claimed the right to “approve" an election. While not conceding such approval was necessary to their election, validly elected popes accommodated these political leaders to “keep the peace." Money, civil authorities and powerful families would also affect papal elections in later Church history as well.

Following the eighth century, only Roman clergy could serve as papal electors, and this tradition endured into the early part of the second millennium. In addition, the man normally elected pope was simply a priest, not a bishop. This is because bishops were “married" to their dioceses and it was thought that bishops should not leave their dioceses for another, even for Rome. Pope Formosus, a bishop when elected to the papacy, was an early exception to this tradition (891-96) and a source of controversy. A successor, Pope Stephen VI, exhumed the corpse of Formosus, putting the late pontiff on trial for, among
other “crimes," abandoning his diocese. Unfortunately for both Stephen and the memory of Formosus, the charism of infallibility does not extend to Church governance. Stephen declared the ordination, election, and consecration of Formosus to be invalid and had his body tossed into the nearby Tiber River. A few weeks later Stephen himself was killed by strangulation. Subsequent Popes corrected Stephen’s abuse of authority, declaring the pontificate and acts of Formosus to be valid and lawful.[1]

The idea of cardinals as papal electors developed over time. Since the early Church, popes have appointed cardinals to serve the Papacy as counselors and ecclesiastical superiors. Because of their office, they usually would be in or near Rome. In the eleventh century, though, Pope Leo IX (1049-54) began appointing bishops in distant lands as cardinals. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II (1059-61) restricted papal elections to cardinal bishops. In 1079, Alexander III modified the system to include all cardinal clergy. The Church’s cardinals have elected all popes since then but one, the exception being the election that ended the Great Western Schism in 1417. The roots of that great ecclesiastical crisis date to the days of the “Avignon Papacy," when popes governed
the Church from Avignon, France, not Rome, from 1309-77. Pope Gregory XI, heeding the counsel of St. Catherine of Siena, returned the papacy’s headquarters to Rome in January 1377. Urban VI, Archbishop of Bari, Italy, succeeded Gregory in 1378. While he possessed ample executive skills, he lacked the prudence to implement them. He was considered “irascible, hot-tempered, stubborn, and inconsiderate in the extreme."[2] His intemperate plan to reform the Vatican curia alienated a number of bishops, who decided to elect another “pope," Clement VII (1378-94). While Urban certainly contributed to the schism, the chief responsibility must be borne by the cardinals who elected Clement, thereby breaking communion with the pontiff and the Church in general. Urban VI was
validly succeeded by Boniface IX (1389-1404), Innocent VII (1404-06), and Gregory XII, who voluntarily resigned in 1415 to help resolve the Great Western Schism. In 1417, 23 cardinals and 30 representatives from the ecumenical Council of Constance elected Pope Martin V, thus ending the schism.

Despite the various ways the Church has chosen to select or elect a pope, God has been true to His word, ensuring that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. Despite political intrigue, war, and scandals, and even amidst great crises like the Great Western Schism, God has ensured that valid popes were elected. The Great Western Schism is not the first time the Church has endured antipopes, that is, false claimants to the papacy. Despite these controversies, history records that validly elected popes have been clearly identifiable. Out of 263 pontiffs, there are two main exceptions. Pope John XII
(955-64) was deposed by a Roman council on December 4, 963 and succeeded by Leo VIII (963-65). Meanwhile, when John XII died, Benedict V (964-66) was elected. Obviously, both men could not simultaneously be pope. If the deposition of John XII was valid, Leo would be the valid pope and Benedict an antipope. John XIII (965-72) succeeded Leo VIII. On the other hand, if the deposition of John XII was invalid, then Leo VII was an antipope. The invalidity of the deposition seems more likely given that, as pope, he is supreme pastor of the Church and would thus have to consent to any deposition. If that is
the case, then John XIII—at least until Benedict V died—was an antipope as well. In any event, after the death of John Benedict V, the papacy of John XIII was not contested. Even if one were to argue that John XIII was not ever validly elected, the election of Benedict VI (973-74) would be seen as restoring order after a several-year papal vacancy.

The other major controversy involves Benedict IX (1032-44), who became the youngest pope, his age being estimated from 12 to almost 20. He was forcibly removed from office and succeeded by Sylvester III, who reigned briefly from January 20 to February 10, 1045. Benedict IX was reelected, with the help of an army. Realizing the insecurity of his position, however, Benedict resigned after serving less than a month (April 10, 1045 to May 1, 1045), giving way to the election of his sponsor, the archpriest John Gratian, who compensated Benedict monetarily for his resignation and became Pope Gregory VI (1045-46). Gregory VI was then succeeded by Clement II (1046-47). If Benedict’s removal by force was not legitimate, Sylvester III was an antipope. This appears to be the case because of Benedict’s efforts to regain the Papacy. If Benedict’s resignation in 1045 was not freely given, which seems likely, then Gregory VI and Clement II were antipopes as well.

The “College of cardinals" method of selecting a pope appears here to stay, as is a more internationally diverse cardinal electorate. The Bishop of Rome has always been the universal pastor of the Church, but the early Church’s relatively limited geographical outreach allowed for most electors to come from Rome. Even as the Church became increasingly global, Italy in particular and Europe in general maintained dominance in the College of cardinals. In 1846, for instance, there were only 8 non-Italian cardinals, but Pius IX, in his 32-years reign, created 183 cardinals, of whom 51 were foreigners, and in 1878
there were 25 living non-Italian cardinals. In 1903 the number remained unchanged, with 1 American and 29 Italians. In 1914 there were 32 Italians and 25 foreigners, 3 of whom were American. As of March 2005, Europe as a whole constituted only 50 percent of the college, while developing countries constituted 36 and the United States nine percent.[4]

While now part of the canonical process, the practice of cloistering the cardinal electors was born out of frustration. In the 13th century, the papacy was vacant for almost three years. Papal elections in that century were held in Viterbo, some 50 miles northwest of Rome. Authorities, with the support of the local faithful, finally locked the cardinals in a building until they elected a papal successor to Clement IV (1265-68). The election of Pope Gregory X (1271-76) ended the vacancy and, in 1274, Gregory institutionalized the practice of a “conclave," a word which comes from the Latin for “locked with a key."[5]

Some popes have served for many years, the top three being St. Peter (30 to 64/67); Pius IX (1832-78; 31 years, seven months); and John Paul II, whose pontificate was 26 years, five months. The shortest has been Urban VII, who reigned on only 13 calendar days (Sept. 15-27). John Paul I only reigned 34 calendar days in the summer of 1978, but he doesn’t even make the “Top 10″ of shortest-reigning popes.

For centuries, beginning in 1179, a two-thirds majority vote of cardinal electors was needed to elect a pope. In 1945, Pope Pius XII decreed that it be two-thirds of the cardinal electors plus one. In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, John Paul II decreed that two-thirds is sufficient if the cardinal electors present is divisible into three equal parts. If not, two-thirds plus one is needed. The big change by Pope John Paul II
is that a simple majority—that is, 50 percent plus one, which is also known as an “absolute majority"—will suffice if no candidate has been chosen after a number of ballots (about 30 votes in 12 days).

In serving as pope, one also serves as the Bishop of Rome. This means that a person must be able to validly receive the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders to become pope. The person must be male and he must be baptized (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 1024; Catechism, no. 1577).

The Church provides that a pope can only leave office by freely resigning or dying. A pope so incapacitated as to be unable to resign is still pope. Given the Church’s indefectibility, the Church trusts her Lord to guide her through such times, as He has in the past.

Who will be the next pope? Many pundits predict an older bishop (65 years older), given that John Paul II served for more than a quarter of a century. An older pope doesn’t necessarily mean a shorter pontificate. Leo XIII (1878 to 1903) was 68 when he succeeded Pius IX, yet he served for more than 25 years. “Surprise popes" are unlikely in the modern age, especially given heightened media scrutiny of potential candidates and that the man selected will almost assuredly come from the College of cardinals. Pope John Paul II is an exception, having emerged after two favored Italians, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri and Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, were passed over.

Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Because of the increasingly international nature of the College of cardinals, his successor may be a non-Italian as well. Given the entrenched, structured election process associated with the College of cardinals, the threat of another antipope controversy seems remote. In any event, Catholics can know in faith that the Holy Spirit will protect the Church, ensuring that a successor to John Paul II will eventually be validly elected, and that the Church will endure until the end of time.


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