Today the Vatican released revisions to the rules governing papal conclaves.

The main point of these revisions was to allow the cardinals to start the Conclave earlier, if they wish to.

According to the old rules, the Conclave needed to begin not earlier than 15 days and not later than 20 days after the death of the Pope.

The new rules allow the cardinals to vote on the first day after the vacancy begins, to start the Conclave whenever they wish.

The reason for the rule change is that there is no papal funeral, which normally would require nine days.

Theoretically, the cardinals could actually vote to begin their Conclave almost immediately, even on March 2, that is, on Saturday. That would be a stunning decision, and is not expected. It is widely expected that they will vote to begin the Conclave on or about March 10.

It now appears that those who would like a quick Conclave are those who more closely associated with the Curia.

At first, there seemed to be no desire on the part of the cardinals to delay the Conclave, so the consensus seemed to be to vote to begin by March 10 or so. However, recently, following remarks by several cardinals expressing a wish to have “enough time” to consider everything prayerfully, there seems to be emerging an idea that perhaps delaying the Conclave to the 15th, or even later, would not be a bad idea.

It appears that, if one or more cardinals would wish to delay the Conclave, they could do so by not attending the first few sessions on March 1 and following days, since this document, according to the letter of its text, seems to say that a vote to bring the Conclave forward to an earlier date cannot be taken unless all the voting cardinals are present.

So by staying away, one cardinal could prevent the election from being scheduled earlier than March 15 — it would seem.

The relevant paragraph is No. 37: “The College of Cardinals is also granted the faculty to anticipate the beginning of the Conclave if all the Cardinal electors are present as well as the faculty to defer, for serious reasons, the beginning of the election for a few additional days.”

Another change in the rules is a much stricter policy regarding secrecy. Any violation of the secrecy of the Conclave is now punished by automatic excommunication from the Church.

A third change is that the election must be by a two-thirds margin, even after many, many votes. In the old rules, written under Pope John Paul II, after 34 votes, the rules allowed for two candidates to be “finalists” and then for one to be elected by a simple majority.

This means that the next Pope must, before being elected, gather around him a consensus of at least two-thirds of all the voting cardinals.

There is another change here mandated in the Conclave process. In the press conference about the norms of the (now superseded) Apostolic Constitution Universi Gregis Dominici two days ago, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts was asked: “After a certain number of votes, there is a run-off between two cardinals only, the two highest vote-getters in the preceding vote. They themselves do not vote, but the required two-thirds of the remaining Cardinals is still required for election. What happens if neither cardinal gathers the support of two-third of the electors in this run-off vote?”

The bishop secretary answered that, in his opinion, to break the deadlock, everything would start all over again, with everybody becoming eligible again.

With this motu proprio, Pope Benedict decided otherwise.

If the run-off takes place, then in all subsequent votes the same two people will continue being the only ones capable of being chosen, until one of them receives two-thirds of the votes.

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