How will a new Pope be chosen?

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

To most, the selection of a new Pope comes down to a puff of smoke — literally.


When a Pope has been picked, it is signalled through a tradition that dates back more than a century: a puff of white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.

But what goes on behind the scenes before that?

In this case, what happens before we learn who will succeed the retiring Pope Benedict the Sixteenth?

“I do find this a bit like trying to read the entrails of chickens … and you can quote me on that.”

The speaker is talking of trying to analyse the conclave that will name a successor to Pope Benedict the 16th, head of the world’s 1.2-billion-strong Catholic Church.

And the speaker is Professor Neil Ormerod — a professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney.

That is how mysterious the process can be, so murky that even a Catholic theologian, asked if it reminds him of any other process, impishly suggests, yes, but won’t elaborate.

“It does, but not to organisations I’d want to publicly link the Catholic Church to … Look, it’s very much built on these personal relationships, relationships that people build up over years and decades. And I think it’s quite different from the sort of modern, democratic- or meritocracy-type models that we’re used to. It’s much more built on those personal relations. So it’s difficult to find modern comparisons.”

In part, that is because the papal conclave, or meeting of the Church’s College of Cardinals, dates back to the year 1274, with only periodic, mostly minor changes.

Historically, the naming of a new Pope has often been an achingly slow process.

Not this time, though.

After becoming the first Pope in nearly 600 years to resign his position instead of carrying it to his death, Pope Benedict has now pushed forward the naming of his replacement, too.

This week, he issued a decree allowing the qualified cardinals — all of those under age 80 — to move ahead with the conclave to elect his successor.

“I leave the College of Cardinals the possibility to bring forward the start of the conclave once all cardinals are present.”

Traditionally held up to a month after the papacy is vacated — including nine days of official mourning for a deceased Pope — this one will begin just days after Pope Benedict finishes.

After the 85-year-old Pope steps down, the plan is for the cardinals to almost immediately begin meeting informally to discuss the conclave.

A Vatican spokesman says they could agree on a date in the very first days of March.

The general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Brian Lucas, is predicting the end result will be a new pope about 15 years younger.

“I think, probably, the (choice) would be (someone) either side of 70. Someone too much at the bottom end of the 60s, late 50s — John Paul the Second was 58 — that tends to suggest a long papacy, which is good if you get it right but not so good if you don’t get it right, and an extraordinary burden on the individual. We tend to forget that this is a human being in this role.”

Father Lucas suggests the cardinals will look for someone who is not just academic and not just bureaucrat – someone with both governance abilities and a breadth of vision.

He describes a conclave process that perhaps most closely, in modern terms, resembles a sequestered jury.

The process begins informally, with the the cardinals flying into Rome from around the world for the pre-conclave gathering.

Father Lucas says the cardinals will get to know each other, discuss the candidates and their strengths and weaknesses and hear presentations about the Church’s needs right now.

Those informal meetings could take days, but, when the actual conclave begins, the whole tenor changes.

The cardinals — about 115 in number — gather in the small Sistine Chapel, with its renowned Michelangelo-painted ceiling, and get down to selecting the new Pope.

From that point on, they will be cut off from all outside influence, all media, until they elect a Pope.

Father Lucas says the isolation is rigorously enforced.

“Once the actual voting begins, they are housed in a hostel inside Vatican City. It was built by Pope John Paul the Second precisely for this purpose — the Casa Santa Marta. It’s a hostel which normally is used by various clerics who work in the Vatican offices. They’ll all vacate. The cardinals will then walk through the Vatican Gardens to the Sistine Chapel. The Swiss Guards will ensure that there’s no influence upon them, that they can’t be accosted by anybody. All of the staff who attend to their domestic needs and so on are all sworn to secrecy.”

And the voting begins.

Father Lucas says he is told each cardinal writes his vote on a piece of paper, walks up to a table where three cardinal scrutineers accept his ballot, then announces his vote.

After that happens 115 times, the votes are counted.

Much like the run-off election of many countries, the voting for perhaps 20 to 30 candidates in the first round then narrows to the true contenders.

The cardinals hold two ballots each morning and two each afternoon until someone gets two-thirds of the votes.

It is a requirement Pope Benedict reinstated in place of a simple majority, because, Father Lucas says, the Pope felt a simple majority carried an inherent risk.

“I think that, probably, we have to appreciate that this is the person who has to be the leader of the whole Church. And unlike what we’re used to with our elections in the two-party system in Australia, the United States, where you only need to get that one extra vote to get the majority, well, if you get a hundred people and 51 vote for you, you’ve still got to remember there are 49 who voted against you. And as we know in Australia with our hung parliament, it doesn’t go much for good governance to have that sort of, uh, tight situation.”

Instead, one possibility is that the College of Cardinals actually diverts from the leading candidates in a sharply divided contest and settles for an alternative candidate.

This conclave comes with the Vatican engulfed in a climate of intrigue and scandal, capped now by British Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation over allegations of improper behaviour.

He denies the allegations that he made sexual advances towards priests in the 1980s but says he will stay away from the conclave to avoid the media attention he would bring.

Some in the Church reportedly fear that pushing the conclave forward favours those working in and around the Vatican — essentially, the old guard under whom the problems festered.

But Neil Ormerod, the professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, suggests the shift in timing is more about making one concession to modern times.

“I think it’s largely logistic. I mean, a lot of the cardinals would already be on their way there, I would think. It’s really a question of, these are busy men with large agendas in their own dioceses, or in their Roman dicasteries, and you want to be as efficient as you can so that people can get back to their day jobs.”