Papal conclave

Coat of arms of the Vatican City.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Vatican City
Flag of the Vatican City.svg Vatican City portal
046CupolaSPietro.jpg Catholicism portal
The 1492 conclave was the first to be held in the Sistine Chapel, the site of all conclaves since 1878.

A papal conclave is a meeting of the College of Cardinals convened to elect a Bishop of Rome, also known as the pope. The pope is considered by Roman Catholics to be the apostolic successor of Saint Peter and earthly head of the Roman Catholic Church.[1]

Concerns around political interference led to reforms after the interregnum of 1268–1271 and Pope Gregory X's decree during the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 that the cardinal electors should be locked in seclusion cum clave (Latin for 'with a key') and not permitted to leave until a new Bishop of Rome had been elected.[2] Conclaves are now held in the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.[3]

Since the Apostolic Age, the Bishop of Rome, like other bishops, was chosen by the consensus of the clergy and laity of the diocese.[4] The body of electors was more precisely defined when, in 1059, the College of Cardinals was designated the sole body of electors.[5] Since then, other details of the process have developed. In 1970, Pope Paul VI limited the electors to cardinals under 80 years of age in Ingravescentem aetatem. The current procedures were established by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitution Universi Dominici gregis[3] as amended by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and 2013.[6] A two-thirds supermajority vote is required to elect the new pope.[7][8]

Historical development

Coat of arms of the Vatican City.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Vatican City
Flag of the Vatican City.svg Vatican City portal
046CupolaSPietro.jpg Catholicism portal

The procedures relating to the election of the pope have undergone almost two millennia of development. Procedures similar to the present system were introduced in 1274 when Gregory X promulgated Ubi periculum following the action of the magistrates of Viterbo during the interregnum of 1268–1271.[9]

The process was further refined by Gregory XV with his 1621 bull Aeterni Patris Filius, which established the requirement of a two-thirds majority of cardinal electors to elect a pope.[10] The Third Lateran Council had initially set the requirement that two-thirds of the cardinals were needed to elect a pope in 1179.[11] This requirement had varied since then, depending on whether the winning candidate was allowed to vote for himself, in which cases the required majority was two-thirds plus one vote. Aeterni Patris Filius prohibited this practice and established two-thirds as the standard needed for election.[12] Aeterni Patris Filius did not eliminate the possibility of election by acclamation, but did require that a secret ballot take place first before a pope could be elected.[13]


As early Christian communities emerged, they elected bishops, chosen by the clergy and laity with the assistance of the bishops of neighbouring dioceses.[4] St. Cyprian (died 258) says that Pope Cornelius (in office 251–253) was chosen as Bishop of Rome "by the decree of God and of His Church, by the testimony of nearly all the clergy, by the college of aged bishops [sacerdotum], and of good men".[14] As in other dioceses, the clergy of the Diocese of Rome was the electoral body for the Bishop of Rome. Instead of casting votes, the bishop was selected by general consensus or by acclamation. The candidate would then be submitted to the people for their general approval or disapproval. This lack of precision in the election procedures occasionally gave rise to rival popes or antipopes.[15]

The right of the laity to reject the person elected was abolished by a Synod held in the Lateran in 769, but restored to Roman noblemen by Pope Nicholas I during a Synod of Rome in 862.[15] The pope was also subjected to oaths of loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor, who had the duty of providing security and public peace in Rome.[16] A major change came in 1059, when Pope Nicholas II decreed in In Nomine Domini that the cardinals were to elect a candidate, who would take office after receiving the assent of the clergy and laity. The cardinal bishops were to meet first and discuss the candidates before summoning the cardinal priests and cardinal deacons for the actual vote.[14] The Second Council of the Lateran in 1139 removed the requirement for obtaining the assent of the lower clergy and the laity,[15] while the Third Council of the Lateran in 1179 gave equal rights to the entire College of Cardinals when electing a new pope.[17]

Through much of the Middle Ages and Renaissance the Catholic Church had only a small number of cardinals at any one time, as few as seven under either Pope Alexander IV (1254–1261)[18] or Pope John XXI (1276–1277).[19][20] The difficulty of travel further reduced the number arriving at conclaves. The small electorate magnified the significance of each vote and made it all but impossible to displace familial or political allegiances. Conclaves lasted months and even years. In his 1274 decree requiring the electors be locked in seclusion, Gregory X also limited each cardinal elector to two servants and rationed their food progressively when a conclave reached its fourth and ninth days.[15] The cardinals disliked these rules; Pope Adrian V temporarily suspended them in 1276 and John XXI's Licet felicis recordationis revoked them later that same year.[21][a] Lengthy elections resumed and continued to be the norm until 1294, when Pope Celestine V reinstated the 1274 rules.[22] Long interregna followed: in 1314–1316 during the Avignon Papacy, where the original conclaves were dispersed by besieging mercenaries and not reconvened for almost two years;[23] and in 1415–1417, as a result of the Western Schism.

In 1587 Pope Sixtus V limited the number of cardinals to 70, following the precedent of Moses who was assisted by 70 elders in governing the Children of Israel: six cardinal bishops, 50 cardinal priests, and 14 cardinal deacons.[18] Beginning with the attempts of Pope John XXIII (1958–1963) to broaden the representation of nations in the College of Cardinals, that number has increased. In 1970 Paul VI ruled that cardinals who reach the age of eighty before the start of a conclave are ineligible to participate.[24] In 1975 he limited the number of cardinal electors to 120.[25] Though this remains the theoretical limit, John Paul II (in office 1978–2005) exceeded this for short periods of time. He also changed the age limit slightly, so that cardinals who turn 80 before a papal vacancy (not before conclave start) can not serve as electors;[3] this eliminated the idea of scheduling the conclave to include or exclude a cardinal who is very close to the age limit (and in 2013, Cardinal Walter Kasper, 79 when the papacy became vacant, participated in the conclave at age 80).

Choice of electors and of candidates

Originally, lay status did not bar election to the See of Rome. Bishops of dioceses were sometimes elected while still catechumens, such as the case of St. Ambrose,[26] who became Bishop of Milan in 374. In the wake of the violent dispute over the 767 election of Antipope Constantine II, Pope Stephen III held the synod of 769, which decreed that only a cardinal priest or cardinal deacon could be elected, specifically excluding those that are already bishops.[14][27] Church practice, however, deviated from this rule as early as 817 and fully ignored it from 882 with the election of Pope Marinus I, the Bishop of Caere.[28] Nicholas II, in the synod of 1059, formally codified existing practice by decreeing that preference was to be given to the clergy of Rome, but leaving the cardinal bishops free to select a cleric from elsewhere if they so decided.[29] The Council of 1179 rescinded these restrictions on eligibility.[17] On 15 February 1559, Paul IV issued the Papal Bull Cum ex apostolatus officio, a codification of the ancient Catholic law that only Catholics can be elected Popes, to the exclusion of non-Catholics, including former Catholics who have become public and manifest heretics.

Pope Urban VI in 1378 became the last pope elected from outside the College of Cardinals.[30] The last person elected as pope who was not already an ordained priest or deacon was the cardinal-deacon Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici, elected as Pope Leo X in 1513.[31] His successor, Pope Adrian VI, was the last to be elected (1522) in absentia.[32] Archbishop Giovanni Montini of Milan received several votes in the 1958 conclave though not yet a cardinal.[33][34] As the Catholic Church holds that women cannot be validly ordained, women are not eligible for the papacy.[b] Though the pope is the Bishop of Rome, he need not be of Italian background. As of 2017, the three most recent conclaves have elected a Pole (1978), a German (2005), and an Argentinian (2013).

A simple majority vote sufficed until 1179, when the Third Council of the Lateran increased the required majority to two-thirds.[11] As cardinals were not allowed to vote for themselves (after 1621), the ballots were designed to ensure secrecy while at the same time preventing self-voting.[c] In 1945 Pope Pius XII removed the prohibition on a cardinal voting for himself, increasing the requisite majority to two-thirds plus one at all times.[39] He eliminated as well the need for signed ballots.[40] His successor John XXIII immediately reinstated the two-thirds majority if the number of cardinal electors voting is divisible by three, with a rounding up to two-thirds plus one otherwise.[d] Paul VI reinstated Pius XII's procedure thirteen years later,[25] but John Paul II overturned it again. In 1996, John Paul II's constitution allowed election by absolute majority if deadlock prevailed after thirty-three or thirty-four ballots[3] (thirty-four ballots if a ballot took place on the first afternoon of the conclave). In 2007 Benedict XVI rescinded John Paul II's change (which had been criticised[by whom?] as effectively abolishing the two-thirds majority requirement, as any majority would suffice to block the election until a simple majority was enough to elect the next pope), reaffirming the requirement of a two-thirds majority.[7][8]

Electors formerly made choices by accessus, acclamation (per inspirationem), adoration, compromise (per compromissum) or scrutiny (per scrutinium).[9]

  • With acclamation, the cardinals would unanimously declare the new pope quasi afflati Spiritu Sancto (as if inspired by the Holy Spirit).[39] If this took place before any formal ballot has taken place, the method was called adoration,[41] but Pope Gregory XV excluded this method in 1621.[42][43]
  • To elect by compromise, a deadlocked College would unanimously delegate the election to a committee of cardinals whose choice they all agree to abide by.[39]
  • Scrutiny is election via the casting of secret ballots.
  • Accessus was a method for cardinals to change their most recent vote to accede to another candidate in an attempt to reach the requisite two-thirds majority and end the conclave. This method was first disallowed by the Cardinal Dean at the 1903 conclave.[9]

The last election by compromise is considered[by whom?] to be that of Pope John XXII in 1316, and the last election by acclamation that of Pope Innocent XI in the 1676 conclave.[44] Universi Dominici gregis formally abolished the long unused methods of acclamation and compromise in 1996, making scrutiny now the only approved method for the election of a new pope.[3]

Secular influence

For a significant part of the Church's history, powerful monarchs and governments influenced the choice of its leaders. For example, the Roman emperors once held considerable sway in the elections of popes. In 418, Emperor Honorius settled a controversial election, upholding Pope Boniface I over the challenger Antipope Eulalius. On the request of Boniface I, Honorius ordered that in future cases, any disputed election would be settled by a fresh election.[45] After the demise of the Western Roman Empire, influence passed to the Ostrogothic Kings of Italy and in 533, Pope John II formally recognised the right of the Ostrogothic monarchs to ratify elections. By 537 the Ostrogothic monarchy had been overthrown, and power passed to the Byzantine emperors. A procedure was adopted[by whom?] whereby officials were required[by whom?] to notify the Exarch of Ravenna upon the death of a pope before proceeding with the election.[46] Once the electors arrived at a choice, they were required[by whom?] to send a delegation to Constantinople requesting the emperor's consent, which was necessary before the individual elected could take office. Travel to and from Constantinople caused lengthy delays.[47] When Pope Benedict II (684-685) complained about them, Emperor Constantine IV (in office 654-685) acquiesced, ending the requirement for emperors to confirm elections. Thereafter, the Emperor was only required to be notified.[48] The last pope to notify a Byzantine emperor was Pope Zachary in 741.[49]

In the 9th century, the Holy Roman Empire came to exert control over papal elections. While Charlemagne (Emperor from 800 to 814) and Louis the Pious (Emperor from 813 to 840) did not interfere with the Church, Lothair I (Emperor from 817 to 855) claimed that an election could only take place in the presence of imperial ambassadors.[50] In 898 riots forced Pope John IX to recognise the superintendence of the Holy Roman Emperor.[51][52] At the same time, the Roman nobility also continued to exert great influence, especially during the tenth-century period known as saeculum obscurum (Latin for "the dark age").[53]

In 1059 the same papal bull that restricted suffrage to the cardinals also recognised the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor (at the time Henry IV), but only as a concession made by the pope, declaring that the Holy Roman Emperor had no authority to intervene in elections except where permitted to do so by papal agreements.[29] Pope Gregory VII (in office 1073-1085) was the last Pope to submit to the interference of the Holy Roman Emperors. The breach between him and the Holy Roman Empire caused by the Investiture Controversy led to the abolition of the Emperor's role.[54] In 1122 the Holy Roman Empire acceded to the Concordat of Worms, accepting the papal decision.[55]

From about 1600, certain Catholic monarchs claimed a jus exclusivae (right of exclusion), i.e. a veto over papal elections, exercised through a crown-cardinal. By an informal convention, each state claiming the veto could exercise the right once per conclave. Therefore, a crown-cardinal did not announce his veto until the very last moment when the candidate in question seemed likely to get elected. No vetoes could be employed after an election. After the Holy Roman Empire dissolved in 1806, its veto power devolved upon the Austrian Empire. The last exercise of the veto occurred in 1903, when Prince Jan Puzyna de Kosielsko informed the College of Cardinals that Austria opposed the election of Mariano Rampolla. Consequently, the College elected Giuseppe Sarto as Pope Pius X, who issued the Constitution Commissum nobis six months later, declaring that any cardinal who communicated his government's veto in the future would suffer excommunication latae sententiae.[56][57]


To resolve prolonged deadlocks in papal elections in the earlier years, local authorities often resorted to the forced seclusion of the cardinal electors, such as first in the city of Rome in 1241, and possibly before that in Perugia in 1216.[58] In 1269, when the forced seclusion of the cardinals alone failed to produce a pope, the city of Viterbo refused to send in any materials except bread and water. When even this failed to produce a result, the townspeople removed the roof of the Palazzo dei Papi in their attempt to speed up the election.[59]

In an attempt to avoid future lengthy elections, Gregory X introduced stringent rules with the 1274 promulgation of Ubi periculum. Cardinals were to be secluded in a closed area and not accorded individual rooms. No cardinal was allowed, unless ill, to be attended by more than two servants. Food was supplied through a window to avoid outside contact.[e] After three days of the conclave, the cardinals were to receive only one dish a day; after another five days, they were to receive just bread and water. During the conclave, no cardinal was to receive any ecclesiastical revenue.[15][60]

Adrian V abolished Gregory X's strict regulations in 1276, but Celestine V, elected in 1294 following a two-year vacancy, restored them. In 1562 Pius IV issued a papal bull that introduced regulations relating to the enclosure of the conclave and other procedures. Gregory XV issued two bulls that covered the most minute of details relating to the election; the first, in 1621, concerned electoral processes, while the other, in 1622, fixed the ceremonies to be observed. In December 1904 Pope Pius X issued an apostolic constitution consolidating almost all the previous rules, making some changes, Vacante sede apostolica.[61] John Paul II instituted several reforms in 1996.[9]

The location of the conclaves became fixed only in the fourteenth century. Since the end of the Western Schism in 1417, however, elections have always taken place in Rome (except in 1799–1800, when French troops occupying Rome forced the election to be held in Venice), and normally in what, since the Lateran Treaties of 1929, has become the independent Vatican City State. Since 1846, when the Quirinal Palace was used, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican has served as the location of the election. Popes have often fine-tuned the rules for the election of their successors: Pope Pius XII's Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis (1945) governed the conclave of 1958, Pope John XXIII's Summi Pontificis electio (1962) that of 1963, Pope Paul VI's Romano Pontifici eligendo (1975) the two conclaves of 1978, John Paul II's Universi Dominici Gregis (1996) that of 2005, and two amendments by Benedict XVI (2007, 2013) that of 2013.