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The last conclave?


On 17 August, The Tablet, one of Britain’s major Catholic periodicals, published an article about the papal succession. Journalist Christopher Lamb interviewed Alberto Melloni, Professor of Church History at Bologna and author of an outstanding history of conclaves in Italian, who set out his case for reforming how popes are chosen.

Melloni has long been an advocate of reform. The conclave process is an anachronism, he intimates (as he has also done on previous occasions): a bunch of semi-superannuated senior clergy get together in total secrecy to decide whom amongst them should lead. No criteria govern their decision. They are not accountable to anyone. It’s not fit for purpose.

The idea that none of the cardinals want the burden of leadership is a pretence belied by, for instance, George Pell’s final, electioneering memo. Theirs is a contest for control of the Church’s direction for the next decade or so – and the transparency of that process matters now more than ever. First, because the Church is in the global media spotlight in a way it has never been before. Second, because Pope Francis himself has changed the nature of both the Sacred College and wider Church governance.

Why hold a secret ballot when there is so much suspicion of the Church’s opacity in the wake of child sexual abuse scandals, we might ask? Equally, why still limit the franchise so tightly after Francis has fought so hard to increase lay input, including by women, into ecclesial decision-making.

Francis has also changed the College’s composition with more cardinals from non-traditional backgrounds. The cardinals of 2023 just do not know each other as well as their forebears used to throughout much of the twentieth century. They have not sat alongside each other on committees for so long or even observed each other running major metropolitan archdioceses. How can they really know whom amongst them will be best at discharging the arduous role of supreme pontiff? And, just as appositely, can it really be sensible to ask them to reach a consensus on that in just two or three days (the duration of the 2005 and 2013 conclaves) plus a couple of weeks of lead-up time?

Melloni specifically advocates slowing conclaves down to allow more time for dialogue and discernment. After all, what is the rush? Any student of history knows that past cardinals chose popes quickly only when they feared for the Church’s stability if they did not do so. But that is scarcely an issue right now. There is certainly no need to sprint through the process just to satisfy the dictates of the global media cycle.


'Church governance and institutional arrangements have undergone change since time immemorial. The whole Catholic idea of 'tradition' is based on the premise that developments not present in the Church’s earliest days are legitimate and should be embraced. Why stop that process?'


Our student should also recognise that the conclave’s arcane rules, only partially visible to outside observers via Vatican TV in 2013, arose for historically contingent reasons which are no longer totally relevant. On the one hand, medieval cardinals, had to find a way show that the new pope was God’s choice not the Emperor’s (hence the idea of isolating themselves). The cardinals, locked away behind closed doors, were demonstrably free from outside interference and thus could plausibly be said to have been guided in their selection by the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, the exclusion of prying eyes made it easier to sustain faith in the election’s unanimity – an important category both canonically and theologically because it was the sign that the Holy Spirit had indeed been the election’s moving force. Absent it, and the conclave could just be dismissed as another summit for horse-trading.

Yet even the Church itself would not now defend against the proposition that many past conclaves were exactly that – political affairs. Outside secular influences were rarely excluded for long. The evidence is overwhelming.

Many specific rules, such as the anonymous ballot and the two-thirds threshold for election, were also introduced to guard against threats that have long since passed. The 'two thirds' rule is there so that if a candidate wins two thirds of the votes and becomes pope then half his voters will have to defect from him to another candidate before that man can challenge him and cause a schism. Anonymous balloting, on the other hand, simply made it easier for the cardinals to politick because it gave them plausible deniability against the charge that they had failed to support the new pope when he did emerge.

The case for keeping the conclave as is just because 'this is how the Church has done things for two thousand years' is not strong – not least because the conclave has existed for less than one thousand of those years and has demonstrably changed in all kinds of ways during that time frame.

The Church is a naturally conservative institution and so it naturally sees risk in sweeping old structures away. And it is surely true that major change, such as creating lay people as cardinals (Constant Mews, writing in this publication ten years ago, saw no good reason not to), or expanding the electorate or the time frame for election might draw further attention to the conclave’s essential arbitrariness and artifice.

Yet Church governance and institutional arrangements have undergone change since time immemorial. The whole Catholic idea of 'tradition' is based on the premise that developments not present in the Church’s earliest days are legitimate and should be embraced. Why stop that process?

The irony is that the Church’s wider rules invest considerable, even decisive, authority to decide anything and everything in the pope alone. He could make changes unilaterally but in general popes have not. As Melloni observes: 'after the consistory next month, Francis will have appointed more than 70 per cent of the cardinal-electors, the closest thing a pope has to succession planning' (Christopher Lamb’s words).

Any leader who can stack the deck like that has little incentive to change the rules, it would seem – although that observation does beg its own question about whether the fix is really so reliable? After all, a majority of the cardinals who in 2013 chose Pope Francis were the 'creatures' of the somewhat different Benedict XVI.




Dr Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the Australian Catholic University and author of Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450–1700 (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Main image: Cardinals begin deliberations for a new pope (Arturo Mari - Vatican Pool/ Getty Images)

Topic tags: Miles Pattenden, Conclave, Pope Francis, Vatican, Catholic, Church



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Existing comments

The conclave elects the bishop of Rome and, by an (increasingly unrealistic) historical fiction cardinals are the clergy of Rome. But is that still important? Being bishop of Rome is these days scarcely the pope's main identity. Moreoever, as Dr Pattenden indicates, the pope's prerogative of choosing those who will elect his successor is wrong. It is just plain wrong. One alternative is for the electors to be the heads of episcopal conferences. At least that would have the merit of representing the global church - and the heads of episcopal conferences at least are themselves elected, albeit by a group of their peers rather than by the faithful at large. As for "lay" cardinals, there have never been any, though plenty who were not priests. They were all, however, clerics, and anyone who becomes a cardinal is really no longer a lay person. But why the fixation on cardinals anyway? They undoubtedly add colour (literally as well as metaphorically) but, as I have already written elsewhere, they are an anachronism.

Michael John Walsh | 07 September 2023  

Unfortunately the Pope these days wears two hats. He is the head of a recognised country (the Holy See 1929) and also the leader of the RCC.
His spiritual pronouncements are peppered with political pronouncements which invariably offend one side or another.
Shortly after Russia invaded, Francis stated the “Barking of NATO at Russian’s door may have forced Putin to invade Ukraine”. NATO wasn’t barking at Russia’s door and never took or threatened military action or other action against Russia except later when Putin threatened resort to nuclear weapons. NATO was an alliance created to protect countries from Russia’s threats that have proven real.
His recent exhortation to the Russian children to be proud of their imperialistic heritage, referring to Peter the Great and Catherine 11 were insensitive to Ukraine Christians. Twice he has showed favour to Russia over Ukraine.
The fact is their there are 120 faiths in Australia and only one enjoys diplomatic immunity and nation state status.
To put the RCC on par with other faiths our politicians should revoke the Holy Sees nation state status. The RCC are after all the biggest proven exporter of child sexual terrorism the world has ever seen.
And again the current Synod has disappeared into a cloud of secrecy.

Francis Armstrong | 08 September 2023  

The late Fr Bob Maguire referred to the Papacy as 'the last absolute monarchy on earth.' The Cardinals who elect the monarch all have a chance of gaining that guernsey. It is, in many cases, a very slim chance. At the present moment, with no living Australian Cardinal and an election in the wings, we have none. In a world where real parliamentary democracy is being weakened all the time and with the rise of unresponsive oligopolies, as in Australia, it seems odd that some opinionati and ultracrepidarians want to impose their version of 'democratization' on the Papacy and papal elections. The current form of Papacy, centred in a sovereign state, arose when sometimes appalling secular monarchs ruled in Europe. A central Catholic belief is that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church. Sometimes the secular policy of the Church, viz persecution of the Hussites, may seem wrong, I think, by and large, the Church has been protected, certainly from major doctrinal error. That, I think, is a major triumph. I do not think going down the same path as the declining Anglican and historic Protestant Churches is the answer.

Edward Fido | 10 September 2023  

The Papacy isn't an absolute monarchy Edward, it's a transnational corporation. It has more in common with Google and the other tech giants that operate world-wide and offer services rather than tangible.goods. Its national manifestations are branch offices, subordinate to the centre, rather than subsidiaries, that share governance with local equity. 'Members' may have an 'account' with it, as with Facebook or Twitter, but they have no ability to influence the way the corporation operates or who runs any part of it.

Ginger Meggs | 23 October 2023  

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