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from issue no. 05 - 2003


The Conclaves in close-up

The importance of the electoral law developed over the centuries. From the decree In Nomine Domini, issued by Nicholas II in 1059, up to Universi dominici gregis of John Paul II in 1996

by Walter Brandmüller

Cardinals going in a conclave meeting

Cardinals going in a conclave meeting

Among the most tense and most awaited moments in the history of the church, the Papal elections stand out. When a new Pontiff has been elected and the oldest Cardinal Deacon begins his announcement with the traditional words “annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam ....”, the orbis terrarum seems to hold its breath.
It is precisely to these moments that Piazzoni has devoted this book of his and it is a book distinguished by erudition, broadness of view and an understanding of the problems. In outlining in great arcs the history of the conclaves Piazzoni, I’m glad to say, includes enough anecdotal material to arouse the curiosity of the reader.
Focusing on details, however, I shall necessarily limit myself to certain aspects more familiar to me because of my own research, generally the Middle Ages, and specifically the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
We are talking, therefore, of the most tempestuous conclave in history, the one marked by a violent attack on the Vatican by the people of Rome from which – on 8 April 1378 - the Archbishop of Bari and Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, Bartolomeo Prignano, a Neapolitan, emerged as Pope with the name of Urban VI. I am happy to see that Piazzoni shares my thesis about the validity of this election, which at first caused very positive, if not enthusiastic reactions, from contemporaries.
But a few months afterwards, deluded and dissatisfied by the reforming rigor, gradually more incisive and anti-French, of the newly elected pope, the Cardinals declared the election invalid because of constraints on the voting, and meeting at Fondi, they elected Cardinal Roberto di Ginevra – of the French royal house – who took the name of Clement VII. This happened on the 20 September itself, a fatal date in the history of the Papacy because it is also the date when the walls of Rome were breached at Porta Pia in the 19th century and the temporal rule of the popes came to an end. As it was then, the Cardinals caused the notorious Western Schism which was to last for almost forty years. Not until the Council of Constance, summoned to reunite the Church under a single pontiff, was Martin V elected on 11 November 1417. There, too, was a unique and extraordinary conclave! In order to heal the schism first between two, and at a later moment between three contendentes de papatu , an unquestionably legitimate election was required that had the approval – the so-called obediences - of all three parties in the shattered Church.
How was it to be achieved?
In long and very complicated negotiations with high strong tension running within the Council, the solution was finally found in a special composition of the electoral body. It was made up not only by the College of Cardinals, now composed, rounded out, with cardinals for each of the three alleged popes, but also – and this was an absolute novelty – by six deputies elected by each of the so-called “nations” of the Council.
Second point: for the valid election of a candidate a two-thirds majority was required in each deputation. Despite this complicated and highly risky procedure – just three negative votes in any delegation could block everything – the election went through and Martin V was chosen.
In explaining to the reader the most spectacular conclave in history, Ambrogio Piazzoni makes us understand the importance of the electoral law developed over the centuries – beginning with the first decree of this kind issued by Nicholas II, In nomine Domini, of 13 April 1059, up until Universi dominici gregis of John Paul II, of 22 February 1996.
Here are the major steps along the way: first, it was established that only cardinal bishops could elect a new pope; afterwards, the other cardinals associate themselves and finally the clergy and people of Rome adhere. Then, in his decree Licet de evitanda discordia of the Lateran Council III, Alexander III in 1179 prescribed the necessity of a two-thirds majority of the vote for the election to be valid. It emerges clearly from the formulation of that decree that concern for the unanimity of the electors and the unity of the Church motivated the introduction of the principle of the two-thirds majority. In fact in the very decades before the election of Alexander other schisms had occurred because of ambiguous elections, and the last case was that of Alexander III himself.
It is interesting to observe that the Western Schism, mentioned above, the longest and most dangerous constitutional crisis of the Church, broke out the year following an election in which a Pope, Gregory XI in 1377, changed that rule – the one and only time it occurred – making the requirement one for absolute majority only.
Pius XII introduced another innovation, which established the necessity of a two-thirds plus one vote majority to exclude the possibility that a cardinal could be elected on his own vote, always, of course, safeguarding the principle of a two-thirds majority. Most recently the Supreme Pontiff, happily reigning, decided that after a certain number of fruitless ballots the College of Cardinals could decide by an absolute majority.
But speaking of the law in force we have already crossed the threshold from past to future. It remains, therefore, to thank the author and to congratulate him on an estimable work, instructive and interesting, one that deserves to have been printed on better paper.

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