History of Conclaves: It's Grace That Sustains the Church

From Corruption to Comedy in Tales of Pope-Choosing

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The history of conclaves is a fascinating one, although not always very edifying, particularly when popes were closely tied to temporal power.

Tales of skulduggery, corruption and bribery litter papal elections up until the 19th century. And even when the electors try to play by the rules, some ballots have been so farcical they would have made amusing comedy material.

But examining papal elections helps shed light on how the Church evolved to adopt the nature of conclaves we know today. They also show that whatever the sinfulness and weaknesses of her members, and despite their best efforts to bring the Church to her knees, grace sustains her. 

Some of the earliest papal elections are filled with political power struggles and interference that would be a hallmark of many later conclaves. In 687, after clashes between local clergy, the army, and a conniving archdeacon of Rome, electors simply plucked a priest called Sergius from the midst of the people, sent him to the imperial palace where he was acknowledged as pope, and then hurried to the Lateran where he was consecrated pontiff. Surprisingly, given the arbitrary nature of the choice, Sergius I went on to become an accomplished Successor of Peter.

A further curious election took place in 731 when, during the burial of Pope Gregory II, a priest was again seized, this time from the funeral procession, and rushed off to the Lateran where he was made Pope by popular acclaim, becoming Gregory III. 

As papal elections were often compromised by outside forces, in particular lay interference, a number of subsequent attempts were made to restrict the voters to clergy and bishops. After electors rigged his election, Pope Stephen III held a synod in 769 to try to ensure that only cardinal priests and deacons were allowed to be electors (until then they were leading clergy, army officers, their troops and leading citizens). 

By the ninth century, attempts were made to limit interference in papal elections from emperors and magnates of the Holy Roman Empire which, owing to the close relationship between the faith and temporal power (emperors could appoint or impose a pope), had made the process an even greater hot-bed of corruption and skulduggery. 

But the first major reform of papal elections didn’t take place until 1059, when Pope Nicholas II issued the decree Nomine Domine – In the name of the Lord. The decree stated that from then on, popes were to be elected by cardinal bishops alone. The rest of the cardinals would then be asked to give their assent and after that, the clergy and laity of Rome. The purpose was to remove papal elections from the control of noble Roman families such as the Crescentii and Tusculani, and the vagaries of the Roman crowd. As Peter Damian, the famous reforming Benedictine of that time, wrote: cardinal bishops do the electing, other clergy give their assent and the people are able to give their applause.

Yet the unseemly power struggles would continue, leading to occasional antipopes – those chosen by a rival power who wouldn’t accept the legitimately elected pontiff. Nicholas II’s successor, Alexander II, faced a rival in the person of Cadalus, the bishop of Parma, who was put forward by German powers because he would be more sympathetic to the imperial cause. Cadalus was never installed as Pope Honorius II, and simply went back to being the bishop of Parma once efforts to have him installed were exhausted, although he never abandoned his claim to the papacy. 

Conclaves – which means “with key” – came into being in 1179 and the Third Lateran Council of Alexander III. In order to avoid dissension in future papal elections, Alexander introduced the rule that any new Pope had to have a two thirds majority. All cardinals were to vote, not just cardinal bishops. (The rule stayed in place until Pius XII, who then made it two-thirds plus one. John Paul II reduced it back to two thirds, with a simple majority after 34 votes. Benedict XVI made further changes to the process in 2007, reinstating the two thirds rule, but introduced a run-off vote after 34 unsuccessful voting rounds whereby everyone but the two leading candidates are eliminated. The first of the two to reach the necessary two thirds wins.) 

But the reforms only partially worked, and divisions and deadlock would continue. In 1261, the cardinals were deeply divided, and eventually looked outside their own and plumped for a non-cardinal – Jacques Pantaleon, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He would undoubtedly have been surprised: Pantaleon just happened to be visiting the papal curia on diocesan business at the time.    

Still, the most bizarre and farcical conclave would take place in 1271. The papacy had been vacant since 1268 and cardinals were struggling to decide on a pope for a year and a half because of the influence and interference of external powers. Reflecting the frustration many felt, Raniero Gatti, ‘captain of the people’, locked the cardinals up in the papal palace, had the roof taken off, restricted their diet, and surrounded the palace with soldiers. Some cardinals were taken ill as they were left exposed to the elements.

Such protracted conclaves led Pope Gregory X to issue the decree Ubi periculum – ‘Where there is danger’ – in 1274. Among the rules, he ordered that all future conclaves take place in the city where the Pope died, wait ten days for all cardinals to arrive, and that all cardinals live in common in one room with no partition or curtain. They also had to be completely locked in – no one was allowed to enter, communicate with them, nor they with anyone else. Moreover, after three days without an election, they were allowed only one dish at lunch and supper, then after five days, given only bread, wine and water until they came up with a pope. A number of provisos existed when cardinals were taken ill or needed to attend to urgent business.

Ubi periculum would soon be temporarily rescinded and protracted conclaves would return. One in 1292 was particularly divided around the factions in the Roman nobility, the Orsini and Colonna families. After nearly two years of deadlock, a frustrated Charles II of Anjou drew up a list of his own. After that was rejected, he called on an elderly and holy hermit he knew, Pietro del Morrone, and got him to write a letter upbraiding the cardinals for their dilatoriness. The dean of the College of Cardinals read out the letter and said he would vote for Morrone to be Pope. The rest of the college followed suit, leading Morrone to be dragged to Rome and made Pope Celestine V. 

As Pope, he reinstated Gregory X’s decree. But elderly, ill, and as far as he was concerned, unable to govern as pope, Celestine resigned from the papacy in 1294 (Benedict XVI has a devotion to Celestine and left his pallium on his tomb in 2009). His successor, Boniface VIII would incorporate Ubi periculum into the canon law of the Church. 

Many other notable conclaves would take place in the following years. Between 1590 and 1592, there were no less than four conclaves in 18 months; in 1740 the conclave would last six months, during which four of the 68 cardinals died. A further lengthy conclave took place from October 1774 to February 1775, leading to the election of Pius VI. 

Conclave procedures have changed considerably since those times: two ways of electing a pope – by inspiration (cardinals nominate a candidate and greeted with unanimous acclaim) and compromise (choice is made by a mediating committee) – have long since been dropped, and only scrutiny (by secret ballot, requiring the now customary two thirds majority) remains. 

In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI introduced the age limit of 80 for electors, and 120 as the maximum number of voting cardinals. Blessed John Paul II, meanwhile, ordered that conclaves must always take place in the Sistine Chapel. Previous popes recommended the chapel, but earlier conclaves have been held in a variety of churches in Rome and other cities.

The upcoming conclave will be the 75th in the life of the Church – historians date the first as taking place in 1295 when Boniface VIII inserted Gregory’s decree into canon law.

For more on the history of conclaves, I recommend Michael Walsh’s excellent book “The Conclave” and, if you speak Italian, Ambrogio Piazzoni’s “History of Papal Elections”. 

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Edward Pentin

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