This week, the papal conclave begins in Rome. Many expect it will end this week as well, with the election of Pope Benedict’s successor. But CLR Forum reader John McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern and a leading expert on supermajority rules, alerts us to a recent change that may cause the meeting to last longer than expected.

The rules for the conclave are contained in a 1996 decree by Pope John Paul II. As originally written, the decree retained the traditional requirement that a new pope be elected by a vote of two thirds of the conclave–but with a slight alteration. The two-thirds requirement would hold only for the first 33 ballots, or roughly eight days. After that, the vote would be by simple majority. The purpose, obviously, was to break deadlocks and prevent conclaves from dragging on too long.

In 2007, however, Pope Benedict amended the 1996 decree to reinstate the original rule: a two-thirds requirement on all ballots. As a result, the conclave that begins this week will continue until a candidate receives a supermajority. This could result in a longer conclave,┬ábut will ensure that a consensus candidate acceptable to all “sides”–traditionalist and non-traditionalist, European and non-European, curial and non-curial–prevails. And, anyway, recent conclaves have avoided deadlocks, notwithstanding the two-thirds requirement.

In Catholic understanding, of course, the Holy Spirit ultimately guides the conclave and achieves the result the church needs. So one might think this tinkering with voting requirements is rather unnecessary. The Coptic Orthodox Church, following biblical practice, names its pope by lot.┬áBut the supermajority requirement has its value, even if it might occasionally result in a longer conclave, and the Holy Spirit can work through a supermajority as well as a bare majority. As Pope Pius II (above) declared on his election in 1458, “We would judge ourselves entirely unworthy, did we not know that the voice of two-thirds of the Sacred College is the voice of God, which we may not disobey.”

2 thoughts on “The Voice of Two-Thirds is the Voice of God

  1. Very interesting posit.
    I write in response to this particular statement:

    “In Catholic understanding, of course, the Holy Spirit ultimately guides the conclave and achieves the result the church needs”

    I’m not sure how accurate that is. Did the Holy Spirit give the Church Alexander VI? Was that the Pope the Church needed?

    My sense is that the Holy Ghost’s influence is far more indirect. The Cardinals, like all of us, receive promptings from the Holy Ghost. But, like all of us, in the exercise of their free will they may disregard those promptings.

    Catholics are assured that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church. But that doesn’t guarantee us a good pope. I’d posit that it doesn’t even guarantee us the Pope that the Holy Ghost “wants.” But as God can bring good out of evil, even an awful pick for Pope will ultimately redound to the Church’s benefit – but perhaps in ways that are impossible to humanly discern.

    I’m not attempting to express my own personal opinion here – I’m attempting to represent what I understand is Catholic teaching on the selection of a Pope. I may very well be mistaken – and if I am I would appreciate it if someone would be kind enough to enlighten me.

  2. Ron, from Pope Francis’s briefing with reporters today:

    “In everything that has happened, the protagonist is, ultimately, the Holy Spirit. He has inspired Benedict XVI’s decision for the good of the Church; He has guided the cardinals in their prayers and in their election.”

Leave a Reply