Choosing the Pope: Looking back at the process through the ages
History professor Frederic J. Baumgartner discusses how the leader of the world's largest Christian faith has been chosen in the past and what that means for the current selection.
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Renaissance cardinals were basically Renaissance popes in miniature, little different than the popes they elected. They were wealthy, had children, and politicked like crazy in their city states, kingdoms, or countries.Skip to next paragraph
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They were basically making bad choices because there was nothing to choose from but bad choices. There were two popes in the 16th century who were pious men and outside the realm of Renaissance popes, but they both had short reigns.
Q: How does the voting work now?
A: You have to get a two-thirds majority. And you can't vote for yourself.
The way they used to check on that has disappeared, so that may not be enforceable anymore. You used to have to put a motto on your ballot, and they'd check it. The story is that when Benedict XV became pope [in 1914], he was elected by the minimum number. One cardinal demanded that the ballots be checked to make sure he didn't vote for himself, and that apparently deeply offended him.
Q: What if it takes a long time to reach a conclusion?
A: It's taken years, actually, and once it took three years to elect a pope. They finally locked the cardinals in a palace to force them to make a decision. And when they still didn't make a decision, the local people are supposed to taken the roof off the palace. Someone humorously said it was to let the holy spirit in.
Q: Could that happen this time? Could they take off the roof?
A: They'd probably do too much damage to the Sistine Chapel.
Q: Good point. How do the cardinals make choices if politicking is frowned upon?
A: They can't openly politick for each other or themselves. A cardinal can't go have a dinner meeting with three or four of his fellow cardinals and say, "Vote for me," and one of his friends can't do that. That kind of open politicking is specifically barred.
What you can do is talk about the cardinals and what their beliefs and opinions are. Someone like Cardinal George of Chicago who doesn't spend much time in Rome might be talking to someone who's based in the curia to find out about the strong candidates, what their views are, what their health is, whether they are strong or vigorous enough to do the job.
A lot of these guys may be seriously ill or have debilitating disease, which would make it difficult for them to be pope.
Q: How about the kind of you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours kind of politics that we're so familiar with here in the US?
A: You can't horse-trade, at least openly. You can't say, "If you make me secretary of state, I'll vote for you." But you can find out from a friend of cardinal what he thinks about you and who he thinks might make strong possible choices as secretary of state.