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from issue no. 01 - 2007

Variable majorities

In 1996 the possibility of electing the pope not only with the traditional two thirds of the votes, but also with a simple overall majority was introduced. A brief history of an innovation that has stirred criticism and suspicion

by Gianni Cardinale

In George Weigel’s book Benedict XVI. God’s choice, reviewed in this issue, mention is made of the issue of the “electoral system” set out in the rules in force on the occasion of the conclave of 2005, when for the first time the apostolic constitution Universi dominici gregis was applied. An electoral system that at least on one specific point made a remarkable change to the past and that aroused a certain debate and some apprehension. In the apostolic constitution in fact the possibility of electing the pope with a simple overall majority and not with the qualified majority of the two thirds, as set out by an almost millennial tradition in Canon Law, was introduced. But let’s take things in order.

Cardinal electors processing into the Sistine Chapel 18 April 2005 for the conclave that was to elect Pope Benedict XVI

Cardinal electors processing into the Sistine Chapel 18 April 2005 for the conclave that was to elect Pope Benedict XVI

Universi dominici gregis: the small innovations...
The Universi dominici gregis was signed by John Paul II on 22 February (feast of the Cathedra of Saint Peter the Apostle) of 1996, and presented in the Vatican press room the following day at a press conference given by the then archbishop – now cardinal – Jorge María Mejía, at that time Secretary of the Congregation for the Bishops and hence also secretary of the College of Cardinals. On the occasion it was stressed that the changes to the previous rules, the Romano pontifici eligendo, given out by Paul VI in 1975, were minimal. «So those who», it was said, «wanted to look for or expected to find substantial changes in the current set of rules, would obviously be disappointed».
The Universi dominici gregis reiterates in fact that the election of the pope is the sole and exclusive right of the cardinals under the age of eighty, and confirms that the number of cardinal electors must not be higher than one hundred and twenty. So once again the possibility that the presidents of the Bishops’ Councils might have a role in the election of the successor to Peter or that the Pope might be elected by a synod or by a council of bishops was excluded. John Paul II then granted to the over-eighty the honor of conducting the prayer «of the people of God assembled in the patriarchal basilicas of the City of Rome, as also in other churches of the dioceses scattered throughout the world». John Paul II established besides that the electors of the pope be all the cardinals «with the exception of those who, before the day of the death of the supreme pontiff or of the day in which the Apostolic See remains vacant, have already reached the eightieth year of life». For Paul VI instead all the cardinals «with the exception of those who at the moment of entry to the conclave have already reached the eightieth year of life» could participate. In practice it is the case that with the rule now in force, as against the previous one, cardinals who reach eighty in the fifteen-twenty days of pause between the death of the pontiff and the beginning of the conclave can also vote. The Universi dominici gregis also states that «no cardinal elector can be excluded from the election whether active or passive for any reason or pretext». The Romano pontifici eligendo was more explicit on the point and established that no cardinal could be excepted «from the election, active and passive, of the supreme pontiff, because or with the pretext of any excommunication, suspension, interdiction or of other ecclesiastical impediment; these sanctions are to be regarded as suspended only for the purposes of this election [of the pope, ed.]».
As then happened in the conclave of 2005, the Universi dominici gregis continues to set out that the voting take place in the Sistine Chapel, frescoed by Michelangelo, that lies within the Vatican apostolic palace. What has changed, is that the cardinals no longer stay in the palace itself, where they were lodged in makeshift quarters, some of which without services, but in the more comfortable and hospitable Casa di Santa Marta. So there has been no repetition of what happened in 1978, when Belgian cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens opened his door to the Peruvian Juan Landázuri Ricketts, in his bathrobe, asking if he might use the shower, because there wasn’t one in his “cell”…

… and the sole real novelty
What has instead substantially changed is the system for electing the pope. Up to 1996 there were three possible ways. «By acclamation», when without voting the cardinals proclaimed the new pope unanimously and aloud. «By compromise», when in the case of particular difficulty in finding agreement they decided unanimously to entrust to a group of themselves (between 9 and 15) the power of electing, in the place of all, the pastor of the Church of Rome. With the Universi dominici gregis those ways have been abolished. The person who presented the document in the Vatican press room got away with a witticism to justify the abolition of the system «by acclamation»: «It’s difficult that such agreement be reached among one hundred and twenty people and there is the risk of confusing the descent of the Spirit with other things, thereby taking away the electors’ responsibility». The wisecrack amused the American periodical Newsweek (11 March 1996) which printed it in the Perspectives column, a gathering of the famous and curious sayings of the week. So what remains in the Universi dominici gregis is only what was beforehand the third way allowing election by vote with the qualified majority of two thirds. But take care. In the case in which the conclave drags on for thirty-three/thirty-four polls in thirteen days, the cardinals can decide to elect the new pope with only an overall majority of votes. To tell the truth, also in the Romano pontifici eligendo – after twenty-six polls in ten days of conclave – this possibility was allowed for. But only in the case in which all the cardinals, none excepted, had decided for it. With the Universi dominici gregis, instead, this variation can be introduced by the overall majority of the Sacred College. The change is no small matter. Before it could happen that there was intransigent opposition of a third of the Sacred College towards a candidate. That was enough for the candidate not to get elected. Now it’s no longer the case. A pope can be elected with only an overall majority. In practice, in the case in which the cardinal electors are one hundred and twenty, whereas before the agreement of eighty-one voters was necessary to elect the new pope, now sixty-one will be sufficient. When the Universi dominici gregis was presented to the press this innovation wasn’t mentioned in the text of presentation prepared for the occasion, and only after an explicit question from a journalist did the cleric who presented the Universi dominici gregis admit that there was a change from the past on the point, minimizing it...

Two thirds: a rule «always most scrupulously kept for many centuries»
In reality there has been change, and how. The introduction, even if in determined conditions, of the possibility of electing a pope by an overall majority, contradicts a centuries-long tradition, that goes back to the Lateran Council III held in Rome under Pope Alexander III in 1179. In the very first canon of that Council it was established that «since the foe does not cease to sow strife, if there is not unanimity among the cardinals on the choice of the pontiff, and, though two thirds agree, the other third does not intend to agree or hopes to elect another, let him be considered Roman pontiff who has been elected and acknowledged by the two thirds».
Up to the Universi dominici gregis all the pontifical documents of the last century dealing with the election of the bishop of Rome kept strictly to this norm (cf. synopsis). So did Saint Pius X in his Vacante sede apostolica (1904), so did Pius XI in his “motu proprio” Cum proxime (1922), so did Pius XII in his Vacantis apostolicae sedis (1945), so did John XXIII in his Summi pontificis electio (1962), and so did Paul VI in the Romano pontifici eligendo (1975). Indeed Pope Sarto, Pope Pacelli and Pope Roncalli stressed the two-thirds rule had been «always kept most scrupulously [religiossisime] for many centuries»; while Pope Montini “limited” himself to characterizing it as «once given and since then kept scrupulously [religiose]». Not only that, in order to make the two-thirds rule more “pure”, Pius XII and Paul VI established that to be elected the new pope would have to obtain two thirds plus one of the votes, and this so as to make ineffective for the purpose of reaching a quorum the eventual vote given to himself by the elected candidate. In the rule laid down by John XXIII, instead, the simple two thirds was enough. As is also the case with the Universi dominici gregis, only that the constitution laid down in 1996 allows, as against the previous, the possibility that the overall majority of the electors can decide to elect the pope with a simple overall majority.

The frontispieces of the most recent pontifical documents dealing with the conclave

The frontispieces of the most recent pontifical documents dealing with the conclave

Crossed criticisms and suspicions
The election innovation laid down by the Universi dominici gregis was perhaps the element most criticized of this apostolic constitution (even if there was no lack of comment on the larger role, compared to the past, attributed to the Prefect of the Pontifical Ceremonies and to the substitute of the Secretariat of State, at the expense of the one historically reserved to the Secretary of the Congregation for the Bishops and hence of the Conclave…). And the criticisms have come both from the “left” and from the “right”, generating a crossfire of suspicions. As Weigel has written, the «historic innovation» introduced by the Universi dominici gregis did not «please everybody», because «it was thought that it would enable a simple majority to wait until it could impose its own will on the entire body of cardinal electors». In the United States the most critical judgments have come from the liberal Jesuit Thomas I. Reese – later editor of the weekly America – who set them out in his book of 1996 Inside the Vatican. The politics and organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts). John L. Allen jr – special envoy of the weekly progressive National Catholic Reporter in his book Conclave (Doubleday, New York 2002) has explained that in the more progressive circles it was feared that the new electoral law might favor the most conservative elements in the Sacred College, who could count on an overall majority but not on two thirds. Alberto Melloni of the Bologna “workshop” in his Il Conclave (Il Mulino, Bologna 2001) also showed concern about the innovation. But a clear defense of it came from a cardinal considered “liberal”. And it can be found in a volume published at the end of 2003 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Commento alla Pastor Bonus e alle norme sussidiarie della Curia Romana [Commentary on the Pastor Bonus and on the ancillary norms of the Roman Curia], edited by Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, Auditor of the Rota. In this book the Universi dominici gregis is annotated by the late lamented Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda in very authoritative fashion, given that Pompedda, as Dean of the Roman Rota, had been among the closest collaborators of the Secretariat of State in the compilation of the document in question. Well, Pompedda judges the introduction of a simple majority as «one of the positive aspects» of the new rules. And the Corriere della Sera (19 October 2006), in a memorial piece on Pompedda, described him as «the liberal jurist of the Roman Curia ».
In the College of Cardinals instead the most critical voices were those of cardinals considered “conservative”. Such as the Chilean Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship, whom Weigel in his book points to as promoter, in 2001, of some initiatives aimed at encouraging a return to the old rules. But nothing came of the proposals. In the Roman Curia in fact the assessment was not unanimous. It’s said that the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger looked with a certain approval on the initiative backed by Cardinal Medina Estévez. It will be interesting now to see whether and how Pope Benedict XVI will decide to intervene on this specific point.
In the last century all the pontiffs legislated on the rules of the Conclave, with two exceptions: John Paul I, who obviously didn’t have the time for it, and Benedict XV, who in over seven years of pontificate didn’t think it necessary.

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