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Conclaves, the sequestered meetings of the college of cardinals which elect the pope, have maintained an aura of secrecy and ritual throughout the centuries. 

Cardinals meet to begin a conclave. Image via

But despite the appearance of timeless continuity, successive popes have made a point of tinkering with the proper law of papal elections, keeping the process up to date and, hopefully, fit for purpose as the Church moves through history.

Some of these changes have been historic, and at times deeply controversial. Others have been more banal, so much so that they failed to register as major news items when they occurred. 

At 87, Pope Francis has long been expected to leave his mark on the laws governing the election of his successor. 

Last year, his go-to canon lawyer Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda was even known to be working on some “big picture” changes for the process — dramatically narrowing the number of cardinals who could attend even the pre-conclave public meetings — though he subsequently denied it.

While those plans seem to have been shelved, a Church historian with an ear to the Vatican walls has proposed a less seismic reform: seeing the cardinals in conclave vote less often.

In a long essay published on Monday, Alberto Melloni suggested Pope Francis reduce the number of ballots cast daily in the conclave from as many as four to just one. This, the professor suggests, would undoubtedly lengthen the time it takes to pick a new pope, but in the modern climate that would be no bad thing.

But how would fewer votes and longer conclaves actually impact the Church?

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When news broke that Pope Francis had asked Cardinal Ghirlanda to consider possible changes to Universi dominici gregis, the apostolic constitution governing the events surrounding the death of a pope, and the election of his successor, it triggered considerable comment.

The proposals to make the process of selecting a future pope more “synodal” included limiting cardinals’ attendance at general congregations to those eligible to participate in the conclave election — those under 80 years of age — as confirmed by The Pillar

Other proposals, unconfirmed by The Pillar, included inviting select lay people to participate in the conclave itself. 

While Ghirlanda insisted that the reports were “absolutely false,” several commentators close to the papal orbit defended the proposals, and insisted that Francis had long mulled the changes reported by The Pillar, and defended them as both useful and legitimate.

While Ghirlanda’s denials appeared to signal that more radical reforms were off the table, the expectation has remained that Francis would make some changes to the process for selecting his eventual successor. And, if past papacies are any indication, the expectation seems reasonable.

Pope St. John Paul II created the option for cardinals to elect a pope by simple majority, instead of a mandatory two-thirds, if the conclave failed to come up with a successor of Peter after 33 rounds of voting. 

Benedict XVI then reinstated the required two-thirds majority but legislated that the top two candidates go into a run-off ballot after 33 votes.

Both provisions, and the current law, include a regular schedule of daily voting for the conclave (excluding the first day) of two votes both in the morning and afternoon session. 

The conclave which elected John Paul II operated under the previous law of Romano Pontifici eligendo, which also called for four votes daily until a valid result is declared, allowing for days of prayer, reflection, and discussion at stated intervals. But, as noted by Melloni, such provisions have proven unnecessary in the twenty-first century conclaves of 2005 and 2013, both of which lasted barely 24 hours each.

Articulating his own arguments in favor of a switch to once daily ballots, Melloni argues that recent conclaves have shown themselves more susceptible to falling quickly in line behind early front-runner candidates.

This, the historian argues, could make the conclave more susceptible to outside influence in a modern media landscape. 

While the professor spends considerable time speculating on the reasons why outside actors, including Church pressure groups or even state actors might wish to influence the outcome of a papal election, his basic thesis is that the old wisdom that favorite candidates “go into a conclave as pope and come out a cardinal” no longer holds. On the contrary, obviously favored or well-known candidates with solid blocks of support in early ballots are highly likely to emerge on the loggia in short order. 

In that case, Melloni argues, media — including social media — could play a decisive factor in boosting or busting candidates before the cardinals have had any real time to consider their options within a conclave.

He might have a point. 

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Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not elected on the first ballot, his consistory speech on moral relativism, given as dean to the College of Cardinals immediately prior to the conclave, is widely considered to have secured consensus front-runner status in the media and even a simple majority on the first ballot. From there, he was able to quickly attract a two-thirds majority as a consensus candidate, while a third of the college coalesced around Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergolio.

Fast forward to the 2013 conclave, the front runner for election was widely considered to be Cardinal Angelo Scola, then archbishop of Milan, so much so that the Italian bishops’ conference was widely known to have already drafted a release announcing his election.

But, immediately before the cardinal electors went into conclave, Scola was connected in the media to a relatively minor scandal, on the global scale, but one that came at a significant time: media reports noted that a regional Italian politician under investigation for corruption was a longtime friend of Scola’s, and that their connection ran through Communion and Liberation.

The day the conclave began, police conducted dawn raids on hospitals and offices looking into a corruption ring involving Roberto Formigon, Scola’s childhood friend and a CL leader.

While Scola had distanced himself from the ecclesial movement the year before, and the story quickly sank from view after the conclave, his name was mentioned in newspapers in connection with the scandal, just before cardinals were sequestered to elect a new pope.

Scola had been expected to get 50 votes in the first round of voting, but later accounts say he only got 40 at most, others have said less than 30 — and that the ones he lost might have been caused by the prospect of a scandal that cardinals thought might unfold outside the conclave.

At the same time, the previous conclave’s purported runner-up, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, also entered the Sistine Chapel with a dedicated block of supporters, including Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels and German Cardinal Walter Kasper, as well as other superannuated though influential cardinals who supported his candidacy at the pre-conclave consistories, including Westminster’s Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Conner and the subsequently disgraced Theodore McCarrick.

The implied impact of a well-timed but ultimately “nothingburger” media story on Scola’s early supposed lead, and the crowd mentality to rally behind the next best-supported candidate, was, according to Melloni’s argument, exacerbated by the increasingly diverse nature of the college.

As the college becomes more and more geographically diverse, and more representative of the global Church in the process, the members also become less familiar with each other. That trend has accelerated under Francis, during whose pontificate the ordinary consistories of the college in Rome have also become less frequent.

If cardinals who know each other less are more susceptible to moving early with the crowd, it would make sense that this group dynamic would itself be open to easier, more superficial outside influence, including by the media, and even well-timed unsubstantiated reports or rumors.

Melloni’s proposal, that Francis make future conclaves vote only once a day, could in turn put a brake on any runaway candidate gaining instant momentum and election.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that a candidate like Ratzinger emerged from the first ballot with a simple but not two-thirds majority, there would be at least a day, if not two or even three, for the cardinals to seriously weigh their choice and consider their other options.

And, in the case of another Scola-type occurrence, a drawn out voting process could create the space for the cardinals to discuss, and when appropriate dismiss, any late-breaking media stories meant to bear upon candidates’ suitability.

More than either of these, though, slowing down the conclave so it becomes again a deliberation of at least days instead of hours would also clear the space for otherwise unheralded candidates to emerge, be considered, and even elected — as was the case with the Polish Karol Wojtyła, who only came under consideration following a deadlock between the early front-runner Italians, Cardinals Siri and Benelli. 

No one hopes for a return to medieval conclaves which could last months. 

But it increasingly seems like cardinals are taking no time at all to make up their minds in the most important decision in the life of the Church. In that circumstance, it can become easier to see the conclave manipulated, in which interested parties aim to set a potentially decisive narrative in advance. 

And that scenario is the opposite of the prayerful discernment the conclave exists to create.

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