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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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Q: Has a conclave ever occurred during as much of a crisis atmosphere as the church is facing today?
A: There have been certainly been times when the papacy and church were in the midst of a serious crisis at the time of a conclave.There have been times when France and Spain, both Catholic countries, have been at war with each other. And the elections of the 16th century occurred during the Reformation. One could argue that the conclave of 1534 took place during a much more serious state of crisis because of the threat of the Reformation and the issue of how to respond to it.
Q: How will things be different now considering that the previous pope is still living?
A: The fact that he's still alive has got to have some impact on their voting and their balloting, But I think Benedict will make every effort at not influencing the election. To the extent that he really will is a different question entirely. It's one thing to vote for someone who wasn't in the graces of the previous pope when he's dead. But when he's alive, it might be quite different.
Q: What are some of the issues raised by the existence of a former pope?
A: One of the objections to popes abdicating or resigning is that he'll still be around. When the new pope changes policy, there could easily be a schism within the church by those who insist on the old pope's point of view.
Q: How much influence do the Italian cardinals have over the process?
A: They have a home-field advantage and the biggest voting bloc. It was a bit surprising when two popes in a row were elected who weren't Italians.The real question is whether there are any Italian cardinals who are respected enough to be elected. I expect there are.
Q: What are the strengths of the system as it is?
A: The official position about why they do it this way is it give a sense of mystery to outsiders, which is never a bad thing. Being too transparent ends up being a problem. And this way covers up the politics that do take place. A cardinal would tell you it provides an atmosphere in which the holy spirit is free to operate. The truth of the matter is that, far too often, the holy spirit could have hardly been present considering what happened.
Q: Do you think the process is a good one in modern times?
A: For the most part, they've elected decent men as popes in the last several hundred years. The system has continued to work reasonably well. But speaking as a historian, I would dearly love to get the information about what happened in the conclave, at least a couple years after it was over. From that point of view, the system works too well.

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[Curious about the last time a pope resigned? Read my Q&A interview with historian Jon M. Sweeney, author of 2012's "The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation." For more on the history of Christianity, check my interviews with religious scholars Elaine Pagels ("Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation"), Bart Ehrman ("Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth"), and Adam C. English ("The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra").]

 Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.


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