17 March 2013

The Process of a Papal Election

I admit, I am a little late in getting to this, but it’s been a whirlwind of a week!

I had mentioned some time ago, that I would discuss what happens (at this point, ‘happened’) at the Conclave during the election of the Pope.  Now, I have no inside scoop on who got how many votes or how the voting progressed.  All I mean to do is to describe the procedure for voting, putting it in some context with the general law of the Church with regards to voting.

The first question people might have is, does the Church have general laws regarding voting?  Yes, she does.  While the Church is divine in her origin, because she is made up of human beings she has a social dimension like any merely human institution. This is partly what the Church meant when she described herself as a perfect (i.e., ‘per facere’ or complete) society.  As is true with any social institution, the Church needs a method for selecting her leaders. 

The Church has used many means for selecting those who would govern in her name.  The first, of course, is selection by appointment.  Christ appointed 12 men to serve close to him, this group is sometimes referred to in the Scriptures as the Apostles and sometimes merely as “The Twelve”.  Christ chose them and gave them his authority.

The second method of choosing, although used in the early Church, is not so common anymore.  When The Twelve became eleven with the betrayal of Judas, how did they choose his replacement?  From their minds, they submitted themselves to Divine Providence.  The means through which they believed that Providence would show itself?  The answer is given in the Acts of the Apostles:
And they prayed and said, "Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place."  And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.
(Acts 1:24-26 (RSV))

While the Church fully believes that Divine Providence continues to work through its process of selection, it began to develop a different method of selecting its leaders, especially is Bishops.  Eventually the process of a bishop being chosen by a group won out.  (In terms of selection of leaders, other than regards a bishop, the law also allows for other methods, such as postulation, but that will take this discussion further afield than it already is.)

This, however, did not always mean a formal election. In the early Church, this was occasionally done by acclamation.  Acclamation is essentially a unanimous (or nearly so) election without a formal ballot.  One need recall the story of St. Ambrose of Milan, a mere catechumen at the death of Milan’s bishop.  When the clergy and people were discussing who should be their next bishop, a child cried out, “Ambrose!  Bishop!”  The Church assembled agreed, and Ambrose was chosen Bishop.  That method—election by acclamation—was widely considered a valid means of selection for centuries.  The last Pope regarded to have been chosen by acclamation (of the Cardinals) was Pope Innocent XI in 17th century.  Acclamation is no longer a valid form of election, as it is no longer mentioned in Canon Law and is specifically prohibited in papal elections by Universi domenici gregis.

That leaves the election itself.  As mentioned above, elections are mentioned in the Code of Canon Law, Canons 164-179.  In simplest terms, a valid election has three (or four) basic parts: convocation, scrutiny, acceptance, and sometimes confirmation.  Convocation means that one needs to set the date and time of the election and inform those with the right to vote, giving them sufficient time to attend.  This is what happened officially when Pope Benedict’s resignation came into effect, and Cardinal Sodano sent out his letter to all the Cardinals informing them of the vacancy of the See of Peter.

“Scrutiny” is just the fancy Latin-derived word for an election or a casting of ballots.  I have talked a bit about voting itself in the canons already.  Suffice it to say, that all votes must be free, secret, certain, absolute, and determinate.  The law regarding Papal elections both relies on and in some ways deviates from the background rules for elections set forth in the canons.

In describing the process of the election, the secular press generally starts simply with the process of election.  This is, of course, incorrect, and not just technically, but also legally. 

In the governing document Universi domenici gregis, the section titled “the Beginning of the Election” does not begin with the vote.  Rather, recognizing that the actions of the Cardinals are an expression of Divine Providence, it begins with Mass – the Mass for the election of the Pope.  This is very important to remember when discussing the election.  It conveys the Church’s belief that the actions of the Cardinals are not exclusively their own, and are not separate from Divine Providence.  Their actions must be done in a way open to divine grace and the promptings of the Spirit.  Legally, one can also say that this begins the Conclave, and so, for example, legally begins those provisions that require confidentiality for the staff assisting the Cardinals and any other person who might encounter them. 

Recall that the law of the Church does not simply bind the Cardinals and their staff, but everyone in some way.  Specifically, UDG requires:
Anyone [other than authorized staff] who … should happen to meet one of the Cardinal electors during the time of the election, is absolutely forbidden to engage in conversation of any sort, by whatever means and for whatever reason, with that Cardinal.
 After Mass the Cardinals take a break and resume in the afternoon.  Then, in choir dress (i.e., the red cassock and white rochet), they gather in the Pauline Chapel and then process to the Sistine Chapel, the place of voting.  As they do so, they sing the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus.  By this hymn, they invoke the Holy Spirit to be with them and assist them in the course of their decision.  Again, the mainstream press tends to portray the events of the Conclave in starkly secularist terms, but this presents a distorted and inaccurate understanding of an election.

After they have arrived, the Cardinals make their second oath.  They made their first—to follow the norms of UDG and maintain confidentiality—at the first General Congregation after the vacancy of the chair of Peter.  This second oath would have first been read by the Cardinal Dean, Cardinal Sodano, and then agreed to by all Cardinals in turn.  The oath requires them again to follow the norms of UDG and to maintain absolute secrecy about the conduct of the election.  Only the next Pope can dispense them from this oath.  The penalty for violating this provision is excommunication latae sententiae, that is an automatic excommunication imposed by the law itself.  When the last of the Cardinals swears the oath, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations (currently Msgr. Guido Marini) gives the order Extra omnes (All must leave!).

Now, the ballot does not start just yet.  As I mentioned, this is not simply a political event, but a spiritual one.  Previously, the Cardinals had chosen a Bishop to preach to them “ the grave duty incumbent on them and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the Universal Church, solum Deum prae oculis habentes [having before their eyes God alone].” This past Conclave, they chose Prosper Cardinal Grech, an Augustinian priest from the island of Malta.  After this, he leaves the room.  They begin with a prayer, as set forth in the Ordo Rituum Conclavis (Order of Rites of the Conclave).  Then, the Cardinal Dean asks if they are ready to vote.  If a majority of Cardinals agree, the voting begins.

The election is divided into three phases:  pre-scrutiny, scrutiny, and post-scrutiny.  The first act is for the Masters of Ceremonies to hand out the ballots.  The ballots are pre-printed with the words:  Eligo in Summum Pontificem [I elect as Supreme Pontiff].  (You can click here for a Wikipedia image of a very old example of a Conclave ballot.)  After these words, a space is left for the Cardinals to write in a name.  After they hand out the ballots, the Masters of Ceremonies leave, along with anyone else who is not a Cardinal.  

Next, the Cardinals choose by lot those involved in carrying out the duties of the election.  There are three groups with three Cardinals in each:  Scrutineers, Infirmarii, and Revisers.  It is the job of the Scrutineers to collect and count the ballots.  The Infirmarii take the ballots to those Cardinals who may be present in the Apostolic Palace but unable to come to the Sistine Chapel to vote due to illness.  Unlike in corporate shareholder elections in the U.S., voting by proxy is not allowed under canon law.  In this past Conclave, there were no ill Cardinals present in Vatican City, and so the Infirmarii had no role.  The Revisers’ task is to simply review and confirm the work of the Scrtineers.

Next is the process for voting itself—the scrutiny phase.  The rules can be very specific at times, based on the long history of elections.  The Cardinals are instructed to write the name—and only the name—of the man they choose as Pope.  Each Cardinal is encouraged to do so “as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his”.  Then they are to fold the ballot—and the rules explicitly say it must be folded twice.  Presumably, this is to make sure the name cannot be seen as it is carried.

There are no other restrictions on whom the Cardinals can vote for—other than that he be a baptized male.  In the history of the Church, there have been additional restrictions in other elections.  For example, in my own religious Order, our law specifically prohibits a friar from voting for himself in an election.  Which means in the event of an unanimous election, someone has violated this law!  No such restriction exists in a papal election or canon law generally.

The Cardinals proceed one-by-one, in a particular order (based on the type of Cardinal and seniority) with their folded ballot to the ballot box (which is a bit more round than square), which is located at the altar.  As he prepares to drop his ballot in, the Cardinal says: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”  This is done for each and every Cardinal.  (I hope you are beginning to understand why the Conclave can take so long!)

Once all the Cardinals have placed their ballots, the first Scrutineer takes the receptacle and “shakes it several times” to mix up the ballots.  The last Scrutineer then counts them all, taking them from one receptacle and placing them in another.  Just as in Canon law, if there is a disparity between the number of electors and the number of ballots, they are immediately destroyed and they process to a new election.

The counting of the ballots is rather elaborate.  The first Scrutineer takes a ballot, opens it, and notes the name.  He then passes it to the second Scrutineer, who also notes the name.  He then passes it to the third Scrutineer who reads it aloud, so that all the electors can follow the tally.  The third Scrutineer also writes down the name.  As he finishes, he sticks a needle and thread through each ballot (through the word Eligio, so that they are all aligned). When the ballots are all opened, each of the Scrutineers then adds up the tally for each name.  The third Scrutineer then ties the collection of ballots together with the string holding them together.

Now begins the final stage, the post-scrutiny.  After the Scrutineers have taken their tally, the Revisers then double-check their counting.  If no person has received the required 2/3 majority, they then call back in the Masters of Ceremonies and other officials.  They, together with the Scrutineers, burn all the ballots and any notes that the Cardinals may have taken in the tally.  A bit of chemical is added to the stove, and black smoke is produced.

If, however, they have achieved the 2/3 vote, the election is considered a canonically validly one.  In this case as well, the ballots and notes are also burned.  This time, a chemical is added to produce white smoke rather than black.

However, there still is not yet a Pope!  The office of the Bishop of Rome is not filled until the final act of the election is completed, namely acceptance.  The Cardinal Dean is the one who asks the consent.  In this election, that meant that Cardinal Sodano turned to Cardinal Bergoglio and asked him: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”  Cardinal Bergoglio then answered in the affirmative, at which point (and only at this point) was he made Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff.  (Of course, if the Cardinals had selected a man who was not yet a Bishop, he would first have to have been consecrated a Bishop.)  As soon as this was done, Cardinal Sodano asked him: “By what name do you wish to be called?”  To which, the new Pope answered, “Francis”.  This event is then witnessed by a document, by which the Pope officially certifies the acceptance he has just made and the name he has now adopted. 

Following the election, passages of Holy Scripture are read, prayers are said, and the Cardinals sing the ancient hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum.  All of the Cardinals offer their obedience to the new Pope.  Finally, after time for his own silent prayer, and vesting in the white cassock of the Pope, the newly elected Pontiff greets the People of God from the loggia.