Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican Library and author of the book Storia delle Elezioni Pontificie (“History of Papal Elections”), on the most important conclaves in Church history.

The election of the Pope has not always been held as it is today. Conclaves and the norms regulating them have developed over many centuries. The document which now regulates conclaves is the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (Latin for “The Lord’s Whole Flock”), promulgated by Blessed John Paul II in 1996 and first applied to the conclave in 2005 in which Benedict XVI was elected.

During a detailed briefing in the Press Office of the Holy See on February 20, Dr. Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library illustrated the historical process whereby the present rules came into being.

The election of the Pope was not a prerogative of cardinals from the start.

A decree issued by Pope Nich­olas II in 1509 first established that the election of the Pope should be carried out by cardinals alone. This was a milestone in the attempt to establish rules for the election of the Supreme Pontiff for two reasons: first, because Nicholas II made it clear that it was up to the Pope to establish the rules; second, because only cardinals were made eligible to vote in a papal conclave, being the only representatives of the Church of Rome.

But controversy arose in the following years with the election of several anti-Popes. Therefore Pope Alexander III issued a decree introducing a qualified majority of 2/3 for the election of the Pope in order to avoid controversy over the validity of the election (1179).

But some details were yet to be defined, since the Conclave of Viterbo lasted

33 months (1268-1271), almost three years, before the election of Gregory X. The people of Viterbo locked the cardinals inside the Papal Palace (conclave is derived from Latin cum clave, “with a key”) and unroofed the palace to force them to elect the new Pope.

A few years later, after the Second Council of Lyon held in 1274, Pope Gregory X instituted the “conclave” as the method for the selection of a Pope.

The Constitution Ubi Periculum (Latin “Where Danger”) promulgated by Gregory X introduced precise rules like the obligation to begin the conclave only 10 days after the Pope’s death to allow all the cardinal electors to reach the place appointed for the election; it also decreed the cloistering of the cardinals in one place and that the longer the conclave lasted, the more the food given to the cardinals would be reduced.

The first conclave in the current sense of the word was held in 1276 and elected Pope Innocent V in just one day.

From then on, the rules for the election of the Pope were first repealed and then restored as a confirmation of the absolute authority of the Supreme Pontiff in this matter.

It was Boniface VIII who restored the Constitution Ubi Periculum in 1298 and inserted it in the Corpus Iuris Canonici.

Gregory XV introduced an important innovation, election in writing and by secret ballot (1621).

As we know, the papacy lived on through the events of the Counter-Reformation, the French Revolution, the Restoration and the unification of Italy with Rome as the capital city of the new born Italian state.

Dr. Piazzoni resumed his narration of the history of conclaves from the 20th century with reference to the more recent papal elections.

In 1904, Pius X promulgated a constitution introducing important innovations in the wake of the latest conclaves. He abrogated the right of veto, i.e., the exclusive right exercised by the sovereigns of the great powers to draw up lists of “undesirables” to be excluded from papal election.

He also established that cardinals should be bound to secrecy even after the Pope’s election; in addition, he decreed that all the documents of a conclave should be collected and kept in a secret archive belonging to the Pope.

Dr. Piazzoni also discussed the 1914 conclave, during which a checking of the ballot papers was conducted for the first time in the history of the Church.

This checking was needed to make sure that Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa, who had obtained a 2/3 majority and who was to become Pope as Benedict XV, had not voted for himself, which was illegal.

Often, not all the cardinals could reach Rome for the conclave with equal ease; in fact, the cardinals from the remotest countries could not participate in the conclave which elected Pius XI (1922). Hence the new Pope’s provision that 15 days instead of 10 should elapse between the Pope’s death and the opening of the conclave. Once more, it was up to the Pope to establish rules for the Pope’s election.

The 1939 conclave, which elected Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XII, saw the participation of all the cardinal electors thanks to the new rule introduced by Pius XI.

The Constitution Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis, (Lat­in, Vacancy of the Apostolic See) promulgated by Pius XII in 1945, decreed that it was advisable to add one vote to the 2/3 majority. This constitution also established that all cardinals holding an office in the Curia should lose it except for the camerlengo, the penitentiary and the cardinal vicar.

John XXIII’s Constitution Summi Pontifici Electio (Latin, The Election of the Supreme Pontiff) of 1962 restored the 2/3 majority for the validity of papal elections. Under his pontificate, the number of cardinal electors rose to more than 70 for the first time.

When Vatican Council II was underway, Cardinal Montini was elected Pope as Paul VI (1963). With his motu proprio Ingravescentem Aetatem (Latin, Advanced Age) Paul VI decreed that cardinals over 80 may not vote in a papal conclave.

Four years afterwards (1975) he dealt with the issue of papal elections once more with the Constitution Romano Pontefici Eligendo, which restored the 2/3 majority plus one vote for the election of the Pope, introduced a pause for prayer and talks for the cardinals to get to know one another better, and set the maximum number of electors at 120.

Karol Wojtyła, elected Pope with the name of John Paul II, promulgated a complex constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis (1996), which is in force today.

“Down the centuries” – says the introduction to said constitution – “the Supreme Pontiffs have deemed it right to establish fitting norms to regulate the orderly election of their Successor.” John Paul II established that the cardinals should meet in the Sistine Chapel for the election of the Pope and find lodgings in St. Martha’s House; also, it abolished election by acclamation and compromise.

As for the validity of the election, the constitution states that the 2/3 rule applies up to the 34th vote; after that, the cardinals can choose any method of election which they have decided on amongst themselves.

Then the voting could continue following the criterion of a 2/3 majority; otherwise the possibility is contemplated for the two cardinals who have polled the highest number of votes to come up for a second ballot, or for the voting to continue following the criterion of absolute majority.

In 2007, Benedict XVI, who had been on the papal throne for two years, promulgated the motu proprio De Aliquibus mutationibus in nominis de electione Romani Pontificis, which introduced only one change: after the 34th scrutiny there is the possibility for the two cardinals with the highest number of votes in the latest ballot to come up for a new ballot, but always following the 2/3 majority rule.

In this case, however, the two cardinals lose the right to vote.

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