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Cardinal Ghirlanda denies papal election changes under consideration

A senior cardinal has denied reports that he is involved in prospective changes to Universi dominici gregis, the apostolic constitution governing the events surrounding the death of a pope, and the election of his successor in a conclave.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a career canonist and close collaborator with the pope on key legal reforming projects, gave comments to several news outlets Monday, after reports that he had been asked by Pope Francis to examine proposals to make the process of selecting a future pope more “synodal.”

Ghirlanda described the reports, first published by The Pillar, as “absolutely false” in statements provided to media outlets. 

Separately, the Holy See press office issued a statement saying the reports of possible changes to Universi dominici gregis “have no basis.”


The flurry of denials follows a Nov. 4 report from The Pillar, which said that Pope Francis had delegated Cardinal Ghirlanda to develop draft revisions to the papal election process, in light of the approach to dialogue used during the synod on synodality,

The Pillar reported that two key reforms were under consideration, both pertaining to the “general congregations” of cardinals which precede the voting process for a new pope.

During general congregations, which all cardinals are expected to attend, the plans for the conclave election process are fixed, administrative issues are dealt with, and cardinals are afforded the opportunity to offer speeches — typically limited to seven minutes — on their own perspectives regarding needs and issues in the life of the Church.

Citing senior sources both in Vatican canonical circles and close to the Vatican Secretariat of State, The Pillar reported that proposals were being drafted for papal consideration to limit cardinals’ attendance at general congregations to those eligible to participate in the conclave election — those under 80 years of age.

The other prospective change would reportedly modify the format of the general congregation — limiting the opportunity for speeches to the whole College of Cardinals, which would be replaced by sessions of similar style to the synod of synodality, in which participants sit at round tables of 10 or so participants for “spiritual conversations,” followed by reports to the entire assembly summarizing those table discussions.

“It is not clear when draft revisions might be presented to the pope for his consideration and approval, or if a contingent of cardinals has been consulted amid discussions on the subject,” The Pillar reported on Saturday.

The Pillar stands by its reporting.

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Several hours after The Pillar’s report, an article appeared on the website of The Remnant, a publication dedicated to “fighting against [the modernist] revolution in the Church,” which also reported possible changes to the general congregations preceding a conclave being developed by Cardinal Ghirlanda.

In addition to the prospective changes reported by The Pillar, The Remnant also reported on the prospect of what it said were other proposed changes under development, including the possibility that lay people would be invited to the general congregations, and an alleged plan for lay people to make up as much as 25% of the voting members of a papal conclave.

While some senior Roman clergy told The Pillar that there have been rumors that Pope Francis has considered the idea of inviting lay people to participate in general congregations, The Pillar reported Saturday that it could not confirm that idea has been seriously discussed in the Vatican.

The Pillar did not report any discussions involving possible lay voting members of a papal conclave.

In a statement released to the website Lifesite News, Cardinal Ghirlanda said Monday that he was unaware of the proposed changes to a conclave and called the reports “absolutely false.”

In a statement to Catholic News Agency, the cardinal said that “I do not know anything about it and any implication I have in it is a pure lie.”

Ghirlanda’s denials come after considerable commentary over the weekend on the prospect of modifications to the general congregations, including laudatory commentary from a number of public figures, including the pope’s semi-official biographer.

Commenting on the reports, Austen Iveriegh, author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical pope,” said on Twitter that he agreed with online commentators “that any changes being considered are to enable a better discernment pre-conclave.” 

“The tradition that only cardinals vote in a conclave will surely remain,” Iverigh said, while pointing to an interview earlier this year given by Church historian Alberto Melloni.

In an interview in August, Melloni predicted that Pope Francis could “find ways for a greater diversity of voices to be involved in the discussions before future conclaves,” according to The Tablet magazine.

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If Pope Francis were to make changes to the papal election process, he would not be the first pope to do so. 

Universi dominici gregis was last modified by Pope Benedict XVI, who made two sets of changes to the text. The first change revoked a provision that would have allowed an election to be decided by a simple majority, instead of by two-thirds, if a conclave had become effectively deadlocked. The second set of changes allowed a conclave to start sooner or later than the 15 days after a pope’s death originally prescribed the text, and declared a latae sententiae excommunication for cardinals who violate the conclave’s secrecy.

Universi dominici gregis, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II, was itself a change from Romano Pontifici eligendo, the set of norms on papal elections promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI. 

Prior popes also modified the rules for the election of the pope, which have taken different forms at various times in the life of the Church.

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