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Papal Election Process

Greg Tobin
Monday, April 18, 2005; 12:00 PM

Following the passing of Pope John Paul II, Catholics around the world mourned the loss of the pontiff who led the Church for over a quarter of a century. Now, with cardinals gathered in Rome to begin the Papal Election process, there has been intense speculation about who the next pope will be and how the decision is made.

Greg Tobin, author of "Selecting the Pope" and Senior Adviser for Communications, Office of the President, at Seton Hall University, will be online Monday, April 18 at Noon ET to discuss what occurs in the highly secretive conclave.

Read about the latest developments: Cardinals Gather for Conclave to Select Pope. The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Rehobeth, Del.: Is there any understanding of what actually happens in a conclave? Is it a political slugfest, do they yell at each other, empty speeches, psychic channeling, chanting, etc...?


Greg Tobin: Yes, as you can see from my other answers, some participants in previous conclaves have shared a bit about what goes on, the ebb and flow of voting, etc. There have been shouting matches and histrionics, but not very often. See my other answers also to (I hope) gain a sense of how the spiritual process is designed to work. Not "channeling" or any kind of "psychic" workings as we commonly understand those things. But the cardinals do pray, celebrate Mass every day, reflect and meditate, and talk among themselves about issues and candidates. I tried to get "inside" a conclave in my novel, CONCLAVE, to imagine what some of the "action" might be like. Again, there's Father Greeley's book, also Passing the Keys by Francis Burkle-Young (1999) and the recently published Heirs of the Fisherman by John-Peter Pham. These nonfiction books approach the subject from a scholarly perspective. Then my own SELECTING THE POPE is written in a handbook format, trying to capsulize the history and current process.


San Bruno, Calif.: Can the conclave select a non-cardinal as Pope? Other than tradition, are there any theoretical limits on who can be chosen?

Greg Tobin: The last non-cardinal elected as pope was Urban VI in 1378. The 16 cardinals present in Rome (6 remained in Avignon, France where the papacy itself had been located for 70 years) elected a well-respected Italian archbishop. However, it turned out to be a disaster. Urban was "out of control," abusive and maybe a bit off his rocker. Four months later a group of cardinals including the Avignon group elected another man as pope, so there were two popes at the same time. Trying to resolve this mess, a council at Pisa in 1409 elected a new pope, but the previous two lines were still filled -- so there were three popes at once! Thus began the Great Western Schism, which did not end until 1417 (and helped to spark the Protestant Reformation of the next century). So, their history with electing non-cardinals is problematic, to say the least.
The choice must be a male. If elected, the person must be an ordained priest and an ordained bishop before he can be pope.


Philadelphia, Pa.: In theory, is it God who tells the Cardinals who to elect as Pope? Are there any preconditions as to who may be elected, such as, if God tells the Cardinals to elect a non-Cardinal or even a non-Catholic, may they elect such a person?

Greg Tobin: The Church does not teach that "God tells the cardinals who to elect as pope." Instead, the Church has always believed that the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, was sent by Christ to guide and inform and protect the Church. The cardinals must be open to this guidance from the Holy Spirit in order for it to be effective. The cardinals could choose a sinful person (and history, prior to past two or three centuries) has shown that this can indeed happen. There's no direct pipeline (or "popeline"!) from God to these men gathered in the Sistine Chapel. Discernment, discipline, faith all come into play.


Millbrae, Calif.: What lessons can we learn from the last conclave? Were there any leaks on how John Paul II was selected (How many votes were there? Who were the power brokers? What was the role of the American cardinals, etc).

Greg Tobin: Yes, Cardinal Wojtyla's election as John Paul II in the second conclave of 1978 is a "textbook" case. There were eight ballots. Cardinal Konig of Austria promoted the Archbishop of Krakow, along with the American cardinal Krol of Philadelphia (Polish heritage), when it was clear that the leading Italian, Cardinal Siri (a "bridesmaid" in previous conclaves) could not achieve 2/3 vote. Lesson learned: Patience, prayer, listen to promptings of the Holy Spirit, and do not be afraid to make a bold choice!


N.C.: If the conclave is so very secret and the participants (and support staff) take oaths to maintain the secrecy, where does all the information come from after the fact about the intrigue? For example, we usually seem to find out that voting was very close between a couple of candidates and then changes in allegiance were made. Please enlighten us!

Greg Tobin: Well, the cardinals (and support staff within the conclave) are fallible human beings, so they sometimes break the rules. Father Andrew Greeley spoke with a source he called "Deep Purple" for his quite interesting book, The Making of the Popes: 1978. So, you can expect some leakage from a cardinal or two, especially to a favored journalist. It would be difficult to conceive of any real sanction taken against a cardinal who blabs -- in contrast to a staff person who might choose to violate his oath of secrecy.


Edinburgh, Scotland: Given that the cardinal electors are said to be moved by the Holy Spirit, is there a tradition of particular cardinals making it clear before or during a conclave that they would not accept the papacy?

Greg Tobin: Yes, a cardinal may make a statement (probably in the secrecy of the conclave rather than before) if he cannot accept election to the papacy. The cardinals, in fact, would rather know. It has happened in the past, if a cardinal receives some votes, that he may decline. Civil rulers of Spain, France and Austria used to have "veto" power over candidates, and instructed their cardinal(s) to exercise that power to eliminate a cardinal before voting began.


Orono, Maine: Can the cardinals vote for anyone they want to vote for? Or are there "nominees" for the job?

Greg Tobin: Yes, a cardinal may vote for whomever he wants to vote for. There are no "nominees," per se. In fact, the method of election known as compromise or committee, in which after a period of deadlock a delegated committee brings back the name of a recommended candidate (used only very few times in the past, was abolished in Pope JP II's revised rules.


Falls Church, Va.: With its strong PC bias, the Washington Post has been plugging Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria for the next Pope. Does Arinze really have a good chance of becoming Pope? Also, do you think the Italians still have the greatest likelihood of having one of their own selected? An Italian would seem to be a good compromise candidate if the various non-European candidates can't agree among themselves. Do you agree? Thank you.

Greg Tobin: A very rich question, will try to answer comprehensively. First, Cardinal Arinze, like about 20-24 other cardinals, possesses all the qualifications they'll be seeking in the next pope. Washington Post may be biased for Arinze or want to see something new and different emerge from this conclave. Anything is possible at this hour. I personally feel that it is unlikely that an Italian will be elected -- even though, ironically -- they may have the strongest field in recent history, several solid Italian cardinals. Ultimately an Italian could be a compromise, but I think they'll probably cancel each other out. And, in the end, it won't be geography or demographics or "politics" that will be deciding factor.


San Francisco, Calif.: Do you think the conclave will extend many days? What is the rationale for your answer?

Greg Tobin: My best guess, and it's only that, is that conclave will last 4 days. Why? One vote today, first day. Then a "winnowing" process over next day (about 4-5 ballots), then the consensus or compromise or bold choice will become apparent. I don't think the cardinals themselves will want a lengthy conclave. And they've had several days (indeed, several years) to prepare and to come to a decision.


Annapolis, Md.: Is there any chance that Cardinal Law could be elected Pope?

Greg Tobin: No chance in the world that Cardinal Law will be elected. No American will be chosen. Now, I state this categorically because I firmly believe this. The impossible could happen...but I don't think they are even considering the former Boston archbishop.


Columbia, Md.: I've got $100 on Claudio Hummes. It's going to be disappointing if they go back to an Italian. Ho hum status quo. And what did you think of Ratzinger's strong comments? He seems to be grandstanding for a traditionalist. Did his remarks help or hurt his own chances of becoming Pope Benedict XVI?

Greg Tobin: Let's see... I personally don't believe in betting on this particular "event." But Cardinal Hummes of Brazil is as good a choice as any. He may be the leading Latin American candidate, with Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras as another strong contender from the region. I categorize Cardinal Ratzinger's remarks today in his homily as "staunch," in every sense of that word. I don't call it "grandstanding," put laying it on the line. This is what he believes and who he is. If anything, in my mind, they helped his chances. Remember, these cardinals are all very orthodox on doctrine, or else they wouldn't be in the position they're in. My guess on new pope's choice of name is it will be unusual and not a 14th or 16th anything.


Piscataway, N.J.: What are the chances of Cardinal Lustiger of Paris becoming Pope?

Greg Tobin: Cardinal Lustiger's chances are fair to middling. He could be a surprise choice -- and what an interesting surprise it would be to elect a Jewish pope! Of course, St. Peter was a Jew and possibly one or two of the earliest Bishops of Rome were Jews (and many Greeks, Syrians, at least one African -- until the scions of leading Roman families became most common choices). He is well-liked, has been Archbishop of Paris and a cardinal for a long time. He's 78 years old, like Ratzinger . . .A compromise or consensus European choice? Maybe


Syracuse, N.Y.: Is it possible that Cardinal Ratzinger's blunt message today about doctrinal relativism will backfire, and be seen as campaigning?

Greg Tobin: Possible. I think some Catholics or outsiders may see the homily in that light, as at least 2 participants in this forum have!


Southern Md.: At least three media outlets have published lists of likely successors to John Paul II. Most of the cardinals named are non-Italians. That would have been unthinkable in 1978 before Wojtyla was chosen. Do you think that John Paul II's papacy opened the door for other non-Italian cardinals to be considered?

Greg Tobin: Yes, JPII changed the rules and expectations in so many ways. I really think that the next pope will be a non-Italian and a non-European. [Then, perhaps in next conclave, it will "revert" to an Italian for the following pontificate, then be "wide open" again.] The face of the Church is changing, the center of gravity is shifting. The cardinals will sincerely (I believe) look for the best and holiest man for the job -- and they will look "outside the box," so to speak.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a Cardinal "in charge" of the conclave? Maybe the Dean of the College (Is the Dean just most senior in service or appointed?) You have said that the cardinals could vote for anyone, but is there a sense that whoever is "in charge" of the conclave should not be elected?


Greg Tobin: The camerlengo (or chamberlain) is "in charge" of the conclave, as the chairman of the planning process and the balloting process. Currently Cardinal Martinez Somalo of Spain is camerlengo (since 19930. The dean of the College of Cardinals, also very important office, is -- Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany. The last time a camerlengo was elected was in 1939 when Cardinal Pacelli (a Vatican insider and diplomat, and a Roman by birth) was the strong consensus choice in a relatively quick conclave.


Anonymous: Who are the "frontrunners" for Papal secession?

Greg Tobin: Look among other questions and answers for discussion of "front runners." Remember the old saying: "He who enters the conclave as the pope leaves as a cardinal."


Washington, D.C.: To a non-catholic, the whole idea of "electing" someone who is then like a "king" or "supreme master" is pretty strange. There appeared to be little "consensus" during John Paul II's "reign"-- he appeared to lay down a (unilateral) law. Does the new pope answer in any respect to the ones who elected him? Or is he answerable only to God?

Greg Tobin: The election of the Bishop of Rome is the most durable electoral process in history, dating (as I posit) from the Acts of the Apostles where we see elections of deacons and of a successor to the fallen apostle, Judas. Yes, the pope is sovereign of a state, he is the "supreme pontiff" and chief legislator of Church law. But he does not operate autocratically or in a vacuum. He is chief teacher and interpreter of doctrine, but relies on the cardinals and others to help shape his message. He is a member of the worldwide College of Bishops and considered "first among equals" and president thereof. Finally, my favorite papal title, from Gregory i (590-604) is Servant of the Servants of God.


Syracuse, N.Y.: My own "dark horse" candidates are Cardinals Antonelli, Ortega of Cuba, Etchegaray of France and even a Vietnamese. (My prediction: Scola of Venice.) Any thoughts?

Greg Tobin: Interesting horses, and dark, indeed (in my opinion) . . . Scola, as Patriarch of Venice, and as someone who seems very serious and bright, is a natural candidate. Three times in past 100 years the Patriarch of Venice was elected pope: 1903, 1958 and 1978.


Newcastle, Australia: Since the last Pope allegedly elected 85% of Cardinals attending the conclave, how could one expect that a Pope who really cares for the oppressed, through actions rather than prayers,will emerge from this undemocratic and secretive ritual?

Greg Tobin: Pope John Paul II elevated all but 2 of the 115 electors to their titles as cardinals. (The two are Cardinal Baum of the U.S. and Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany.) None of them are bound by any instruction or intention of the late pope, even if he had communicated such to them. One hopes that the new pastor of the Catholic Church will demonstrate, in both prayer and action a real concern for social justice for all, especially the poor and oppressed and persecuted.


Fairfax, Va.: I have not heard the name of Jaime Cardinal Ortega of Cuba mentioned as papabile. Any possibility of him as a serious candidate? Talk about a smack in the face at the United States!

Greg Tobin: Another participant mentioned the Cuban cardinal. It's possible . . .


Anonymous: As someone whose employer is named for the first American saint, when do you think an American cardinal will be seriously considered for Pope?

Greg Tobin: Ha! Go Seton Hall! (And read my novel, CONCLAVE...) The cardinals are traditionally averse to choosing a man from a current superpower (to avoid any potential political influence of problems). Not in our lifetime will an American be chosen. [Now, watch me proved wrong in a few days!]


Cambridge, Mass.: What role to the Eastern Rite leaders have in the conclave? Are there Eastern Rite cardinals? Why is the Pope always from the Western (Latin) Rite?

Greg Tobin: In the popular novel and movie, The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West, an Eastern Rite cardinal is elected: Kyril I. JPII, as a Slavic person with a keen interest in reconciliation and reunion with the East, is the closest we've come in a long time. Though Paul VI was also very serious about dialogue with the Orthodox churches. This morning at the Mass, I saw at least a couple of the cardinals wearing the different Eastern Rite vestments...Cardinal Husar, for one, the Ukranian patriarch, might make a terrific choice.


Washington, D.C.: You said, "And, in the end, it won't be geography or demographics or "politics" that will be deciding factor."

Then what will be the deciding factor?

Greg Tobin: Simply put, and I hope not simplistically, holiness. Personal faith and strength. Another hugely important criteron: pastoral commitment and experience.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think there is any possibility at all that an Eastern Rite Catholic might be elected pope? I have to assume that this would be seen with disfavor in Constantinople due to the Orthodox disdain for what they call the "Uniate" churches, and that for this reason alone the chances of such an election are slim in view of the late Holy Father's efforts to end the East-West schism. Would be interesting, though, especially as it would underscore that the Catholic Church is not the monolithic whole often portrayed by the media.

Greg Tobin: See my previously reply. Cardinal Husar, etc. I don't think it will happen this time. Yes, so many wounds and burdens from the schism in 1054, and so much progress under Paul VI and John Paul II, but no unification yet.


South Orange, N.J.: Mr. Tobin,

How well do the 115 Cardinals who will be selecting the next Pope know one another? Obviously, some of the Cardinals are better known than others. What forums/opportunities do they have to get to one another?

Thank you.

Greg Tobin: Actually, these cardinals know each other pretty well. They travel, they speak multiple languages. Pope JPII held more consistories (meetings among cardinals) than any previous pope and expanded the College of Cardinals to its greatest number. Cardinal Arinze was in Newark, NJ two weeks ago visiting an Ibo/Nigerian Catholic community here. Cardinal McCarrick, our former archbishop, is a frequent world traveler with extensive diplomatic experience. He and the other Americans are rather gregarious among their fellows and have reached out to know their fellow electors.


Va.: Just finished reading your book CONCLAVE last night! It was wonderful - I strongly urge all of the readers of today's online discussion to check it out!

Greg Tobin: Please tell everyone you know about how wonderful it is... Seriously, thanks very much. It was fun and inspiring for me to research and write it.


Brussels, Belgium: The late Pope had an unprecedented involvement in world affairs, including cultivating relations with many political leaders. In light of this, do you think the conclave will be looking for someone with well-developed political/diplomatic skills?

Greg Tobin: Simple answer: yes. Diplomatic skills will be key. Not only in dealing with other world leaders in the civil realm, but in continuing dialogue with other Christian churches, Jews, Muslims, other non-Christian religious communities. Also, he must navigate the sometimes-difficult waters of his own Roman curia, the bureaucratic agencies (called dicasteries) of Church and state governance. Tough job for whomever elected. No honeymoon period, either.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do we know whether anyone, when asked, ever refused to serve as Pope?

Greg Tobin: Yes, though I'd have to look up some of the historical details. Some perhaps should have declined, such as Celestine V in 1294 -- he abdicated a few months later. A tragic circumstance. A cardinal may decline when asked, "Do you accept?"


Gaithersburg, Md.: My late grandfather told me that the pope is Italian because the Italians "have the vote."

Since that is no longer true, it seems to me very unlikely that the new Pope will be Italian. Perhaps in the future, but not now.

Being of Polish descent, my late ggrandparentwould have never believed that the new Pope was Polish. My grandmother's side of the family lived south of Krakow, so John Paul II's predecessor would have been their bishop in the late 1800s.

Greg Tobin: See a previous answer. The pope, remember, is Bishop of Rome, that is his primary job. As such, he is needed by the "local" population as much as by the universal Church. Another complicating factor in an immensely complex job. He must at least have fluency in Italian to be considered seriously for election. And most of the cardinals do.


Laurel, Md.: How well does the geographic/demographic distribution of the Cardinals mirror the worldwide Catholic population? I mean, is the number of Cardinals from Latin American proportional to the number of Catholics there?
Or are there still a lot more European Cardinals than Catholics?

Greg Tobin: The distribution or diversity of the cardinals better reflects now than ever before the true demographic distribution of Catholics throughout the world. It's still heavily weighted to Europe and northern hemisphere. Pope Pius XII really started the process of appointing more non-Italian cardinals, followed by Paul VI and John Paul II. It will take decades, even a century, before it is "accurately" reflective of the Church in the world.


Cuban Cardinal: Interesting ideas and comments on the Cuban cardinal, but I think that it would be more of a slap in the face to communism (which has already had one pope lead to its demise), than a slap to the U.S.

Come to think of it, this might make him my new favorite.

Greg Tobin: The cardinals won't be looking to slap, necessarily. Remember, however, the impact JPII had on communism -- and his critique of capitalism!


Arlington, Va.: If you were part of the conclave right now, who would you vote for and why? And wouldn't you just love to be a fly on the wall on these conclaves?! I know I would!

Greg Tobin: Yes I would. So my eyes and ears are open. I think most of the reporting by American print and TV media has been good, getting better day by day. I give them a lot of credit.


Falls Church, Va.: I was intrigued by the questions about the possibility of a pope from an Eastern rite. Don't some of those rites allow priests to marry? That could have a very liberalizing effect. Are the Eastern churches liberal in other aspects?

Greg Tobin: The Latin Rite has not allowed priests to marry for the past 1,000 years. Some Eastern Rite communities do allow marriage, and the Orthodox churches and Protestant churches do, of course. The last married pope (including a father-son succession) was a long, long time ago. I wouldn't call Eastern churches "liberal" -- perhaps not as doctrinally strict as Catholic teaching and practice.


Laurel, Md.: In 1978 it would have been reasonable to posit that communism was the greatest worldwide threat to Catholicism, so they selected a Pope who both disdained and would be an intellectual leaders and political symbol against it, and they were right.

What threats to the church or its beliefs do they see as its greatest challenges today? Gender roles seen as outmoded by the laity? Preference for consumerism among people who attain education and political freedom? Income maldistribution seen as morally right by the "haves"? The choice between over-population and birth control?

Do any cardinals stand as strong leaders in these issues who could actually move people outside the clergy?

Greg Tobin: Secularism in the Western world. Centralization within the administration of the Church itself. Islam in many parts of the world, including Europe. Persecution, especially in China. Ennui and lack of evangelization in my own backyard. These are some of a host of problems and issues in thumbnail form.


Washington, D.C.: What do we know about this Saint Martha House where the Cardinals are staying? These guys are accustomed to good food, right?!

Greg Tobin: There's no such thing as a bad meal in Rome. And you can bet the cardinals are well served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unlike the notorious papal election of 1271 in which the townspeople of Viterbo withheld food and water -- and, most importantly wine -- from the foot-dragging cardinals, before they tore the roof off the bishop's palace in January to make them come to a decision!


Arlington, Va.: What impact do you think the sexual abuse by American priests will have, if any, on the process? Do you think this is a reason why you believe an American will not be elected? You mentioned that they don't like to elect someone from a superpower, but clearly Rome, and Italy itself, was a "superpower" of sorts in the 455 years before JPII...

Greg Tobin: It certainly is a factor in the unlikelihood/impossibility of an American-born pope. It is not as urgent an issue in many other countries. It was handled ham-handedly and insensitively here for so long by so many that it will have reverberations in these high circles for a long time to come. A shame and a scandal.


Minot, N.D.: Greg Tobin: Opus Dei who backed Pope Paul, also favors Retzinger. The ultra conservative politics of this political organization means little change in policies within the church I assume if Retzinger becomes the next pope?

Greg Tobin: Let me turn this around a bit: both "Ultra-liberals" and "Ultra-conservative" factions see problems, were critical of John Paul II. Neither will be pleased when the cardinals choose a strong believer and teacher of doctrine who puts an optimistic and holy face to the world.


Upstate N.Y.: Given that you have often talked of how the pendulum seems to swing back and forth in the choosing of popes, is there any real chance for an outright "progressive" or "liberal," say, like Daneels of Belgium?

Greg Tobin: See my notes about liberal vs. conservative (not really accurate terms). However, Daneels is probably seen as too "liberal."


Arlington, Va.: There are 117 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave but only 115 are... What happened to the other two?

Greg Tobin: The Mexican Cardinal Suarez Rivera and Cardinal Sin of Philippines are to ill to attend. Cardinal Sin was one of three eligible electors not elevated by JPII to cardinalate.


Springfield, Va.: Eastern Rite PRIESTS may be married (provided they marry prior to ordination). This is true of the Orthodox as well. Neither the Eastern Rites nor the Orthodox will ordain a married man as a bishop, however--bishops must be celibate and traditionally come from the ranks of the monks. Because the pope is a bishop, a married man, even from the Eastern Rites, could not be elected pope unless the celibacy rule were changed as to bishops.

Greg Tobin: Thanks for this good clarification. Yes, bishops were required to be celibate long before all priests of Western Church were. This is the value of dialogue. I always (want to) learn something!


Baltimore, Md.: Greg, I enjoyed your book thoroughly! It is a great, informative read.

Are there any dark horses in your mind that aren't hearing much about that could emerge as a consensus choices from the conclave? I've heard some good things about Cardinals Bergoglio (Argentina) and Napier (S. Africa) for example, but they don't seem prominent on the lists of papabile.

Greg Tobin: This may be my last answer... Bergoglio (though a Jesuit) is often mentioned. Not so much Cardinal Napier. Again, I think that 20 or more are real possibilities. The cardinals will surprise us. And the Holy Spirit will surprise the cardinals!


Greg Tobin: Well, I'm pooped -- but not poped-out yet! This is a momentous time for the Church and the world. Just think, in a few days (probably) we will have a new pope. The pendulum of history swings. Yes, I wish I were a fly on the wall in the Sistine Chapel. At least I'll get another book out of it. Thanks to all for questions and comments. Greg Tobin


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