Stupid Question ™
Feb. 28, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: How is a new pope selected?
—Anonymous, from the Internet
A: Not to be pessimistic about Pope John Paul II, but…well, you’re not asking to be optimistic, are you?
Fittingly, the current pope himself made the most recent changes to an electoral system that has been regularly tweaked to avoid the riots and antipopes that once plagued the choosing of the peaceful pastor of the God of love.
The history of selecting popes is long, colorful and wildly brutal, as amusingly described in Catholic almanacs and encyclopedias.
At first, choosing a guy who was basically just the archbishop of Rome was a relatively casual affair. But then the whole Christianity thing really took off, and next thing you know—riots like there should have been over the 2000 U.S. election.
The Roman emperors, being law-and-order types, said enough of that, and stepped in to start running—not to mention fixing—the elections. No more riots, but a few centuries of Machiavellian politics, assassinations and general unholiness (involving other countries and Italian families, too).
Eventually, the church got sick of all that and decided that only cardinals would choose the new pope. A further tweak was requiring a two-thirds majority vote. Next thing you know—more riots!
Cardinals have to choose among themselves who gets the plum pope-for-life job. One can only imagine the horrific jockeying and office politics involved.
Actually, one doesn’t have to imagine. Just take my personal favorite, the election following the 1268 death of Pope Clement IV. The cardinals jerked around for three years, arguing about who would get the job, and even then didn’t decide until, in the words of Our Sunday Voice’s Catholic Almanac, “the citizens of the city [Viterbo, Italy] reduced them to bread and water and tore the roof off the palace in which they were residing.”
Finally, the church came up with the still-current practice of the Conclave. I.e., the cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel and not allowed to come out until they’ve made up their minds. Unsurprisingly, solitary confinement has greatly speeded the election process.
Things begin when the so-called College of Cardinals convenes in the Vatican for the election, called there by the Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church. They have 15 days to gather, and no more than five days to mess around, with an introductory Mass and processional and so on, before they enter the Conclave. (Cardinals over 80 years old don’t get to vote and hence don’t enter the Conclave.)
The Conclave means they’re sealed inside the Vatican with almost literally no outside contact whatsoever. They’re allowed to spend the night in Vatican lodgings, but the rest of the time they’re locked inside the Vatican Palace. In either case, they’re not allowed to say anything about the voting or deliberations, ever. Secrecy is a huge and significant part of the process, avoiding unsightly Florida-style election embarrassments and scandals. No one ever knows who the “candidates” even are—except for the winning one, of course.
And I mean locked inside, literally. The Vatican’s Swiss Guard puts a padlock on the door .
Once inside, the cardinals can presumably mill about and deliberate as at any political convention—though trading votes is reportedly not allowed. The actual voting takes place in the Sistine Chapel; during the election of the current pope, ballots were counted at a table set up in front of the altar of the Last Judgement. Yikes!
In theory, a pope can be chosen by “acclamation”—that is, all the cardinals agreeing on one guy. Unsurprisingly, this apparently never happens, judging by the amount of time recent Conclaves have lasted.
This leaves “compromise” or “scrutiny”—a normal casting of ballots, as we would call it. Votes are written on paper ballots, put in a ballot box, and read aloud. Four votes are taken each day of the Conclave until somebody wins.
Winning consists of pulling two-thirds of the votes plus one. After a certain number of unsuccessful ballots—30, according to one source—the rule changes to allow the man who wins a simple majority to win the election.
Keeping in mind the obsession with secrecy, all of the ballots, notes and any other election documents are tossed into a stove and burned.
This burning is what led to the famous smoke signal from a Vatican chimney—the sfumata—that is the only indication to the outside world whether a new pope has been chosen. If the smoke is white, that means they’ve made up their minds. If it’s dark, it means they’re still deciding.
The smoke distinction used to be made by adding straw to produce thick, dark smoke if necessary. However, this was never reliable, and more recently chemicals have been used to produce either white or black smoke.
Even this screwed up in the 1978 election of Pope John Paul I, when a reported accident with the “white” chemical unintentionally produced thick, dark smoke.