The Genius of the Conclave

It’s easy for the media to portray the Vatican system as an archaic, absolute monarchy. The pope is like some Chinese mandarin locked away in his palace, cut off from the real world. The curia is like the politburo, scheming in secret behind the Kremlin/Vatican walls. The Catholic Church worldwide is portrayed as an antique aristocracy made up of celibate men who pulls the strings of power while sitting pretty in their palaces and country clubs.

The reality is of a system that has been updated and reformed while still continuing the tradition of the ages. The system for electing the new pope is a good example. In a few weeks’ time about 115 men will gather for the conclave. This page has a very clear explanation of who they are, who can vote and why. These men come from every corner of the globe. They have spent their lives in the church and bring t to the Sistine Chapel a vast reservoir of experience, wisdom and knowledge of the world. Not only are they highly educated, but they have real experience in leadership in the real world.

It’s sometimes imagined that the cardinals are all old, Italian guys who have been loitering around the Vatican and dining at nice Roman  restaurants in red robes waiting to be called for the next conclave. Not so. Most of them are working archbishops managing large urban archdioceses. They have risen to their posts usually from other diocese in their countries. Before that they held responsible jobs as seminary rectors, cathedral deans, vicars general, church diplomats, theology professors or canon lawyers. They not only bring their education and experience, but they bring the history and culture–the needs and longings of their people from every culture, ethnic group and race from every continent of the world.

When we stop and reflect, the conclave of Catholic cardinals really is an amazing group of men, and the fact that they all gather in one mind for one purpose for a few days to select a new pope is, in itself, a remarkable achievement. Is this process democratic? It is democratic inasmuch as a two thirds majority is required for an election and that they continue to vote until they get that majority.

It is not democratic in the sense of there being one vote for every Catholic in the world. However, the process is representative. It is representative because, when it works, the cardinal is not voting for what he wants, but what is best for his archdiocese, his country, his people and for the good of the whole church.

Any reading of the history of the papacy has revealed that the selection or election of new popes has often been a stormy process. It is as if the first disciples were still quarreling about which of them would be first in the kingdom. One of the best things about the modern papacy is that it is free of the great wealth and worldly power that once attached to the papacy. To be pope is now a great burden, and any Cardinal who wants to be Pope shouldn’t be pope because he clearly doesn’t know the tremendous burdens of the job. Because being pope is such a burden the election is, ironically, much easier–who would fight to take on a job like that?

Nevertheless, there may well be disagreements and conflict until the choice is made. In the meantime it is our joy to watch and wait and pray and watch and wait and pray some more until we that moment when we can turn on the TV and hear the words, Habemus Papam!


  • Mary

    Excellent article on the over-view…thank you. Is it not interesting that none of them may vote for themselves? And in this day and time the vote has an age limit of 80 (80 sounds younger every day to me) There are many things like that envolved with this sacred (yes, sacred) political process. Most come from centuries of trial and error.

    There were couple of times the world was without a pope for several years running…they could not come to a concenses. So they figured out locking them up till they reached one speeded up the process. There was one occassion they stopped sending food in and once they tore the roof off and threatened them with physical violence for being too slow! Not something likely to happen in todays era, but the reasons for so many of these traditions are very interesting to me. None are without purpose or cause.

  • Bob

    Question: What language do the cardinals speak to each other inside the conclave? Latin? Italian? They all speak more than one language. I wonder of there’s an “official language” of the conclave.

    Here’s one thing I find interesting from the USA Today page: there are 208 cardinals world-wide, but only 117 of them will be young enough to vote at the time of the conclave. (And a couple might age out during the conclave, depending on how long it goes.) That means that 44% of the cardinals are over the age of 80. Almost half are over 80! That’s kind of amazing, when you think about it. The demographics of the College of Cardinals skew older than a Florida retirement community.

    • Sally

      Not surprising that their average age is so high, since they have to “rise through the ranks” before being named cardinal, meaning there aren’t any young ones (rather like CEOs), and then they are cardinals for life (unlike most CEOs).

    • AnneG

      Also pretty amazing that men, mostly over 70, with decades, 5 or more, of experience and long hours, hard work, many and varied responsibilities, are still going and most seem to be pretty sharp, functioning and serving the Church, us and God. I’m praying for them and their decision.

  • Mary

    Yes Bob…there will be a tremendous amount of age and wisdom in that room! Wonder what the total number of years would be if you added all their years together???

    I dont know for certain what language they will speak, if they will have translators like at the UN or what. I do know the official language is Latin, which is why the Pope’s reputiation (refusal of office) was in Latin. Prehaps they will speak that.

    • Bob

      It’s not clear that this particular group of Cardinals has always demonstrated wisdom commensurate with their age.

  • Marsha

    Personally, I would think they have a common language (Latin, Italian, or English would be my guesses) they use as, most likely, all of them speak multiple languages. Given the secrecy surrounding the conclave and the fact that their assistants and all electronics are banned, I don’t see them allowing translators.

    • AnneG

      I bet they speak English, especially when they speak vastly different languages, like Japanese and Spanish.

  • Jacob Schmidt

    “It is representative because, when it works, the cardinal is not voting for what he wants, but what is best for his archdiocese, his country, his people and for the good of the whole church.”

    “…when it works…” sounds like a cop-out to me. Blood letting is a pretty useful medical treatment when it works, after all. You’re essentially saying “it works when it works”. The tautology tells us nothing about how well or how often it works.

    How do cardinals gain their position? Because unless it’s through public voting, it’s not representative in any political sense. For that, the archbishops would have to answer to the public (catholics in general, not the entire public). Unless the voting can be tracked back to the public, it’s democratic in name only.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I never said it was democratic–nor should it be.

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