Exempting Oneself From Conclave Requires Decision Made in 'Good Conscience'

Cardinals Traditionally Obligated to Participate

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Rome is already beginning to welcome the 115 voting cardinals, as well as many of the 91 cardinals who are already too old to vote but who will participate in the congregations prior to the conclave.

Individual cardinals who serve as bishops and archbishops are taking leave of their flocks — sometimes with a sense of humor, such as that of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, who blogged of his departure today with this request: «Please God, I’ll be home by Palm Sunday. Not a day will go by that I will not think of you here (in New York) with love, prayer and gratitude. If I’m in Rome longer, please send peanut butter. You can’t get it there.»

News attention, however, has sometimes been focused on a cardinal’s perceived worthiness to vote in the conclave, or lack thereof.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, now the retired archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland, announced Monday his decision not to attend the conclave.

The cardinal’s 75th birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day, but the Pope accepted his retirement Monday. According to the Vatican spokesman, the Holy Father was informed of accusations recently leveled against the cardinal regarding inappropriate conduct with seminarians. 

In a statement Monday, Cardinal O’Brien said, «I also ask God’s blessing on my brother Cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to elect his successor. I will not join them for this Conclave in person. I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focussed on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his Successor. However, I will pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the Church.»

Media has also reported about those who want Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, to exempt himself from the conclave.

At the end of January, reports were released detailing Cardinal Mahony’s handling of sex abuse cases in the archdiocese. Those reports resulted in a public response from the current archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gomez. «My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care,» Archbishop Gomez wrote in a Jan. 31 statement. «Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties.»

However in a Feb. 15 letter to priests of the archdiocese, Archbishop Gomez voices his support for the cardinal’s participation in the conclave. 

«Cardinal Mahony will be the senior American Cardinal among the 11 Cardinal Electors from this country. I am confident that Cardinal Mahony’s accomplishments and experience in the areas of immigration, social justice, sacred liturgy, and the role of the laity in the Church will serve the College of Cardinals well as it works to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in these deliberations that will lead to the election of our new Pope,» Archbishop Gomez wrote. 

He went on to clarify that Cardinal Mahony is a bishop in good standing in the archdiocese, though he has no administrative assignments.

«Having been promoted to the dignity of Cardinal, Cardinal Mahony has all of the prerogatives and privileges of his standing as a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church,» the archbishop stated. And he concluded with a request to «pray for Cardinal Mahony as he fulfills this sacred duty as Cardinal Elector.»

The Associated Press reported today that another American cardinal, William Levada, commented at a talk at a seminary today that Cardinal Mahony should participate in the election.

Dr. Matthew Bunson, general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and a professor of Church History at the Catholic Distance University in Virginia, explained to ZENIT that cardinals are traditionally obligated to participate in a conclave «unless they are impeded by reasons of health or insurmountable obstacles to their attendance.»

In fact, Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja, the 78-year-old retired archbishop of Jakarta, Indonesia, has announced that his health will impede him from participating in the conclave. (So far, only Cardinals Darmaatmadja and O’Brien have announced that they won’t participate, which brings the number of electors to 115).

Bunson noted that «in the past, some Cardinals did not set out for Rome from distant locations as they were aware that the distances were too great for them to arrive in time to enter the Sistine Chapel.»

Regarding situations such as that of scandal, Bunson observed, «Under certain circumstances, it is not inappropriate for a Cardinal to decline to attend a conclave if his presence would be the source of dismay or undue distraction. This was clearly the decision made by Cardinal O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.»

«Ultimately,» Bunson added, «the decision is one that each Cardinal must make in good conscience and subject to the approval of the Holy Father.»

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Kathleen Naab

United States

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