The Washington Post

Chart: The curious history of papal elections

The papal conclave, in which cardinals gather in the Vatican for a closed-door meeting to select a new pope, begins today. If past conclaves are any indication, they'll have made their decision by the end of the week. But that's a relatively recent trend; conclaves used to be much, much, much longer.

Most papal conclaves since 1846 have lasted only two or three days, five at most, according to some impressively detailed data analysis by the Atlantic Wire's Philip Bump. He has several charts worth checking out, but this one is particularly interesting. It shows the length of every conclave since 1455; in other words, how long it's taken for the cardinals to pick a pope.


Length of papal conclaves since 1455. (The Atlantic Wire)

For centuries, it seems, the process of selecting a new pope could take months. And why shouldn't it have? The institution exercised enormous political and financial power in Europe at the time. The cardinals' maneuverings and negotiations were an extension of notoriously contentious and complex European politics that had so much at stake in the outcome. The elections, it seems, were not just about determining the church's leadership. They were about politics, both of the back-room and great-power sort, a combination that could make the conclave even trickier.

The longest conclave of the past five centuries was in 1740, which took six months. Six months! Imagine if we didn't have the result until September, watching the Vatican every day for 180 days in a row for that mysterious white smoke to appear. That election was not even the longest, though: three in the 13th century lasted more than a year each, with one of them lasting from 1268 to 1271.

The pope's decline in hard power, around the early 19th century, also seems to coincide with the shorter conclaves. Since then, they've been typically brisk affairs. But that might also have to do with rule changes, as Bump points out.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read

world

worldviews

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.