Could Joseph Ratzinger have pulled two-thirds of the votes in a conclave under the old rules?
The Holy Father with his Personal Secretary, Georg Gänswein
"I would not say … that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined."
-- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on Bavarian television, 1997
This is almost the last of a series of somewhat snarky posts I’ve been making lately regarding both secular and ecclesiastical politics. I promise. I have a brushback pitch I’d still like to throw at the liberation theologians for something, but that ought to just about do it. Then it’ll be back to more spiritual stuff.
In recent decades, most reports and conspiracy theories surrounding the supposedly underhanded plots, machinations, and skullduggery involved in papal elections have come from the extremes on the far right, such as the Cardinal Siri Thesis, which…
...essentially builds on [an] alleged Judeo-Masonic plot. But it adds a "sedevacantist" twist -- the idea that the papacy has been filled by false popes for decades.
According to this theory, Giuseppe Siri, an archconservative cardinal from Genoa, was elected pope at the 1958 conclave of cardinals, and this election was signaled in the traditional manner, with billows of white smoke pouring from a Vatican chimney. Vatican officials at the time said there had been a mistake in the fire pit, but Siri supporters claim that he was actually unseated through the nefarious machinations of liberal cardinals, who replaced Siri with Cardinal Angelo Roncalli. Roncalli became the first "false" pope, known to the world as John XXIII.
In 1963, when the papacy fell empty once more, Siri was again bested by evil forces within the church, Siri conspiracy theorists allege. Although Siri won election, they claim, he was replaced by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who became the second "false" pope, Paul VI. Some Siri partisans blame not only liberal cardinals but also unspecified outside forces that threatened the Vatican with nuclear annihilation if Siri were actually seated as pope.
Some recent remarks, however, by Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, and also an article by canon law expert Ladislas Orsy SJ, have kindled a discussion about the 2005 conclave, and also about a Motu Proprio that Benedict released in June, which had been overshadowed by the anticipation of the impending release of the July Motu Proprio freeing up the Tridentine Mass. An article by Sandro Magister points out that Bertone recently made a reference to reporters about the last papal election at a press conference, stating, “I know that the numbers reported by the press are not exact, and I want to restate that.” In response to the logical and inevitable follow-up questions, he replied, “I don’t remember anything anymore; we burned the ballots.”
In 1996, Pope John Paul II wrote the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, which changed the ancient rule that a two-thirds majority vote of the cardinals was required to elect a pope, and that after two weeks of impasse (some 34 ballots or so), an absolute majority (fifty percent plus one) would suffice.
All laws have unintended consequences... but sometimes intended ones as well.
In June, Benedict's Motu Proprio restored the old two-thirds rule, with a slight twist (after 34 rounds, only the two leading candidates are still eligible... until only one of them reaches the two-thirds majority)
Sandro Magister speculates:
The “motu proprio” got little coverage from the media. And yet it impacts a key aspect of the Church’s life. This much is clear from the extraordinary interest that surrounds every conclave...
According to [conclave voting] leaks, Ratzinger obtained 47 votes in the first round of voting, 65 in the second, 72 in the third, and 84 in the fourth, out of a total of 115 electors. The votes of his opponents are thought to have gone mainly to Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, with 10 in the first round, 35 in the second, 40 in the third, and 26 in the fourth...
In the 2005 conclave, the majority needed for the election of a pope was initially two thirds, equal to 77 votes. But after 34 unsuccessful voting rounds, only 58 votes would have been necessary, one half plus one: this was established by the rules for conclaves promulgated in 1996 by John Paul II...
Last June 11, the date of his “motu proprio,” Benedict XVI eliminated this possibility of lowering the majority requirement. Now, once again, two thirds of the votes will be needed to elect a pope, always....
The experts immediately grasped the importance of this decision. But the commentaries on it have been sporadic. The most interesting of these has just been released in the latest issue of the magazine “il Regno,” published in Bologna by the Sacred Heart fathers. The author is an internationally famous scholar, Jesuit father Ladislas M. Örsy, a professor of canon law and philosophy of law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Orsy belongs to the progressive camp, and has been from the beginning one of the more prominent writers for the international theology review “Concilium,” a rival to the opposing review “Communio,” whose founders include Ratzinger. But Orsy expresses warm appreciation for Benedict XVI’s “motu proprio” on conclaves. And this precisely because he restores the ancient rule of the two-thirds majority for electing a pope.
That the progressive camp should applaud the current pope for having restored tradition is paradoxical. But the matter becomes more understandable if one looks at the potential effects of the innovation introduced by John Paul II.
...in the conclave of 2005, at which those rules were in effect, what effect did they have?
Orsey doesn’t address this. But another prominent exponent of the Catholic progressive camp, the historian of Christianity Alberto Melloni, wrote about it in the June 27 edition of “Corriere della Sera”: the 40 votes for Bergoglio in the third round of voting “in other times would have scrapped Ratzinger’s candidacy”; if this did not happen, it was precisely because the cardinals knew that “even with a simple majority Ratzinger would ascend to the throne of Peter.”
Melloni does not entirely adhere to this interpretation of events. He says that it would be more important to know “how, by what, and by whom another bundle of votes was shifted to Ratzinger” on the afternoon of April 19, 2005, pushing him over the two-thirds majority. Melloni's implication is that this was done by the progressive cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, in order to prevent “an even more terrible, politically motivated solution”: read the election of cardinal Camillo Ruini.
In any case, Melloni maintains, “a shadow” looms over Ratzinger’s election as pope.
“It is clear from the current reform that Benedict XVI wants to free his successor – and, in a certain way, himself – from this shadow.”
Ladislas Orsy is a very interesting guy. I once heard him deliver a day-long lecture on Vatican II at my parish. He was a participant at the Council (one of these days I'm going to post up the notes I took).
On July 15th, he wrote an appreciative article (well, perhaps in a back-handed way) about Benedict's Motu Proprio, which included an interesting "thought experiment." The full text can be found in the Sandro Magister article.
The Reasons For a Return to Tradition
-- Ladislas Orsy
On 11 June, 2007, pope Benedict XVI surprised the Church with an apostolic letter issued "motu proprio", i.e. on his own initiative, concerning the votes required at a conclave for the valid election of the pope. The document is brief, its language is terse, and its content is simple and clear: in all circumstances two thirds of the votes of the cardinals is required for the valid election of a pope. Why was this new order needed?
It was needed because John Paul II had broken with an ancient tradition. On 22 February 1996, he issued an Apostolic Constitution entitled Universi Dominici Gregis, "The Lord‘s Whole Flock." In it he decreed that in the event of a threatening impasse at the conclave, the cardinals may decide by absolute majority (half of the votes plus one) to abrogate the traditional requirement of two thirds, and then they may proceed to the election of the new pope by the same absolute majority...
This was an innovation, and a breach with an ancient tradition; no one could deny it. No wonder that it caused dissatisfaction among competent persons. Benedict XVI in his "motu proprio" refers to them: he states that "numerous petitions of eminent authority" reached the then reigning pope asking him to undo what he did.
Yet, the significance of the new order was not obvious for the public at large; the press usually avid for sensation, hardly mentioned it. After all, in recent elections, just how many times has the conclave come to an impasse? It seemed that John Paul did no more than to provide for an unlikely event; otherwise the change had no significance.
The purpose of this article is to show that the change introduced by John Paul was a momentous deed of his pontificate and that it had the potential to set the church in a new (and perhaps perilous) course...
John Paul overturned a settled tradition. But, as I already noted briefly, the hidden potential of his innovation was not immediately evident. After all, his Constitution retained the requirement of two-thirds for some thirty-four rounds of voting that is likely to take two weeks. Now, in modern times, no conclave has lasted that long. Nor is it likely that it will, since the whole world is waiting and watching impatiently for the white smoke.
Such an expectation is bound to put a psychological pressure on the cardinals; not even the sacred walls of the Sistine chapel can protect them from it. The awareness that entire world is waiting impatiently compels the electors to make haste; it may speed up the conclave more effectively than the threat of a diet of bread and water ever did. Precisely because a long conclave is improbable, the new legislation was seen as a provision for an unlikely emergency.
Yet, we know that "numerous petitions of eminent authority" were submitted to John Paul asking him to change his mind. Why?
We shall never know the mind of the petitioners, but we can do some explorations on our own.
A "THOUGHT EXPERIMENT"
Let us assume, as a "thought experiment, " that a good part of the electors have a candidate, and right at the first round, he obtains half of the votes plus one.
His supporters realize with no delay that – provided they stand by him – he will be elected. If that takes two weeks, so be it. Let us assume also that these electors already in absolute majority discreetly convey to the others that they are not going to change their mind. No rule excludes delicate communication at a conclave.
In the case of such an event, the minority (large as they may be) is put into an awkward position. They can, of course, hold out, but for what purpose? If the absolute majority perseveres, the defeat of the minority is assured.
What can the minority do then? Well, their options are limited.
They can stand firm and force the majority to go through a futile marathon of balloting for two weeks - but if they do so, they will risk alienating the winning majority and the future pope, and all for nothing, because at the end they are bound to lose; they might be even blamed for prolonging the conclave.
Or, they can surrender right then and there by bending their will to the desire of the majority and thus speed up the election by helping to produce the required two-thirds.
In the practical order what would a sensible minority do? In all probability they would admit defeat and vote for the candidate of the majority. It may be a sad gesture for them but they could justify it by the need for unity. They would be also lending support to the future pope.
In the old system, a group that could master absolute majority but not the two thirds of the votes had to be ready for a compromise. Not any more. And there is the hidden force of the new rule: in theory, the requirement of two thirds remains in effect for some two weeks; in practice the sufficiency of an absolute majority can become (it is likely to become) effective as soon as a candidate has more than half of the votes, or is very close to having them.
It would be interesting and instructive to examine some past conclaves with a few hypothetical questions in mind: had the law of John Paul II existed when they were held, what would have been the outcome of the conclave? Would the cardinals have elected another person? Would the history of the church have taken a direction different from the one that it actually followed?
Such questions may sound silly, since there is no way of verifying the answers. Yet, playing with such questions and answers (knowing well what they are) we can learn a good deal. We can learn to be wise and to exercise caution.
IF IN THE CONCLAVE OF 1978...
For an example, I turn to the conclave that elected John Paul II in 1978. I grant that we have no absolute certainty of its inner history, but we can still refer to some probabilities due to reported revelations (not to say indiscretions) by persons who were in the position to know, which is enough for our purposes.
The number of electors was 111. The required two-thirds (plus one) of the votes was 75. For an absolute majority no more was needed than 57. One of the outstanding candidates – "papabile" – was cardinal Giuseppe Siri, well known for his forceful conservative stances at the Council. Gaining gradually, on the fourth ballot he reportedly received 70 votes.
After that, however, it became clear that he could not get more support. His supporters had no choice, the "two-thirds rule" compelled them to look for another candidate, a person more acceptable to the minority. As the story goes, they found him in the person of the Polish cardinal from Krakow, Karol Woytila. He, initially, had no more than a handful of votes, but soon began to attract votes in view of a consensus. On the eighth ballot he was elected pope, and he chose the name John Paul II.
Here is the intriguing question: would Wojtyla have become pope if his own new rule had been operative in 1978? Or, perhaps, would Siri have been elected?
We do not know. But what we can be reasonably certain of is that had Siri been elected, the history of the Catholic Church for the last decades or so would have been different.
It is well known that Siri openly called Vatican Council II a "disaster," and later published a book under the title "Gethsemane: Reflection on the Contemporary Theological Movement" – where he heaped condemnations on many respected theologians who helped the work of Vatican Council II and supported the implementation of its "determinations." No more needs to be said.
Benedict XVI through his "motu proprio" did no more and no less than to preserve "a rule sanctioned by tradition," a rule that worked well for some twenty centuries.
It certainly helped to protect the unity of the community. It bore much good fruit. It has the mark of a gift of the Spirit.
Well, what do you know? Our old friend Cardinal Siri again! He's like a bad penny...
Other commentary on this...
Over on Clerical Whispers is the post Papal vote rigged? Kind of interesting, but what the post doesn't tell you is that the article was lifted from a site run by an anti-Catholic sect called the Philadelphia Church of God. Hardly where I look to for inside Vatican scoop.
Was the fix in? Was John Paul trying to make sure that Joseph Ratzinger was elected as his successor? I don't happen to think that Cardinal Ratzinger could have been elected without John Paul's rule change in place... that's just my opinion, but on the other hand, I don't think John Paul was trying to fix it for him either.
A very good article about the workings and development of the so-called "Ratzinger Solution" can be found in the Atlantic archives in an article called The Year of Two Popes, by Paul Elie. Elie writes of the dinners that were held with close and intimate Polish friends, late in John Paul's pontificate.
A rumor emerged that at one of those meals in the papal apartments John Paul had addressed the matter of a successor. I heard an almost biblical account of a last supper with the disciples from my friend Mark, who was a regular at the pope's table over the years: John Paul summoned his Polish friends and told them that he knew he would not live long and that he could envision either of two men as his successor, making plain that he would prefer one over the other. Neither one was Joseph Ratzinger.
Meanwhile, Ratzinger's supporters had begun to pray for his candidacy—if, that is, the will of God was behind it. For ten years John Paul's death had been thought imminent. As 2004 drew to a close, these men hoped that the present state of suspension at the Vatican wouldn't last too long: the older John Paul got, the older Ratzinger got, and at some point he would simply seem too old to be elected pope. He might pass eighty and be kept out of the conclave. He might fall ill or lose his senses. He might die—for as John Paul liked to jest to friends who spoke of carrying on his legacy, "How do you know that I will die first?"
Did John Paul want a particular man to succeed him? Did he tell anybody? Asked these questions, most of the people I met at the Vatican refused even to begin to answer them. No one had anything to add to the legend of the last supper or knew what might have occurred there. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia curtly replied, "What is gratuitously asserted is gratuitously denied"—a Roman way of saying that a rumor is a rumor. But another cardinal elector, to my surprise, readily assented to the idea that John Paul had someone other than Ratzinger in mind. "I don't think Ratzinger would have been John Paul's candidate—I think he would have wanted a younger man, one who could take the Gospel to the world the way he did," he told me. Rather coldly he added, "But of course John Paul had no vote in the conclave."