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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
11 Jul 2003

The Celestine Conclave

by Jonathan Tuttle

After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, the Catholic Church experienced a papal interregnum which lasted well over two years. For the entire year of 1293, the Church was without a visible leader on earth. Though the Church was undergoing a dangerous phase of sedevacante, the electors were nevertheless deadlocked, with each side intent on getting its man appointed to the most powerful position on earth.

With tensions mounting, on July 5, 1294, it was revealed to the electing cardinals that a devout hermit had prophesied divine retribution if they did not soon appoint a new Vicar of Christ.

After twenty-seven months, realizing that the necessary two-thirds majority was impossible, the electors were ready to admit a stalemate, and began to look outside their inner circle for the next leader of Christendom. In a bold stroke, that is exactly what they did; and on December 13, 1294, they crowned a hermit, Pietro del Morrone, as the successor of Peter.

As the author of the Oxford Dictionary of Popes puts it, the cardinals hoped that their "astonishing" choice of this hermit would "rejuvenate the papacy."

I propose that the next conclave do the same thing: go outside the College of Cardinals for the successor to Pope John Paul II.

"An Astonishing Choice"

Though the election of Peter del Morrone was certainly not the first time a non-Cardinal was elected, nor would it be the last, the logic behind his election was sound. The system had become much too political, and a worthy candidate was difficult to find.

Though the idea of looking outside the College for the next pope might seem revolutionary to contemporary Catholics, it is by no means an innovative notion.

Further, on the basis of historical fact, one could certainly opine that the best popes in history came from outside the College of Cardinals.

There have been 266 men who have served in the illustrious history of the papacy; 78 of whom the Church has canonized. Yet of these 78, only four have reigned after Alexander III granted sole elector power to the College of Cardinals. Also, one of these four canonized popes was not a member of the college when he was elected: Pope St. Celestine V.

There should be no hesitation to elect a man outside the College, and at certain periods of history, prudence dictates that this is exactly what should be done.

The current reasons for reaching outside the existing College of Cardinals for the next pope come under two main headings: perception and reality.

Primarily due to the fact that Pope John Paul II has appointed 105 of the 110 cardinal electors, the press will almost assuredly declare that the new pope was handpicked by Pope John Paul II. Of course, if one of these 105 men is chosen, this will be in a sense, true. However, while being "handpicked" by Pope John Paul II might have been a good thing five years ago, the Holy Father's reputation has suffered dramatically in the past few years. Five or ten years ago, the legacy of Pope John Paul II would have been "the world's greatest traveler", or "the pope that oversaw the fall of communism".

From this point forward, though it is a crying shame, his legacy will be forever stained with the pedophilia crisis.

This presents a dilemma. If the next pope comes from the College of Cardinals, the public's reaction will be that the Church has opted for the status quo, and it will expect the same maddening lack of response over the pedophilia crisis which has been received during this pontificate.

This choice will contaminate the church air in an already polluted environment. Primarily due to the pedophilia scandal and cover-up, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike are increasingly cynical of the present leaders of the Catholic Church. It is progressively clearer that the Church's method of dealing with pedophile priests is as big a scandal as the original crimes, and the perception is that the cover-up runs to the top of the chain of command. The trouble runs so deep that even the once-impervious Pope John Paul II is being second-guessed by many Catholic conservatives. The pedophilia scandal has soured even some of the most devout Catholics to Church leadership. The reality is that even if there are a number of cardinals who possess a saintly love of the Mystical Body of Christ, that doesn't change the fact that these same cardinals are perceived as self-serving politicians, doing everything they can to bury evidence against child molesters, and clinging to their comfortable influential jobs.

That's the perception problem. The reality problem may be worse. For many orthodox Catholics, the thought of the next election is producing one of two sensations: malaise or fear.

Journals from Newsweek to Time to the National Catholic Reporter have been excitedly asking the question for the past ten years: "Who will be the next pope?" The present indifference and suspicion of Church leadership has prompted a different question: "Who cares?" With all due respect to the cardinals and their offices, no one is expecting the next Pope St. Gregory the Great.

No orthodox Catholic can truly get excited at the prospect of any present member of the College of Cardinals becoming the next pontiff. While many orthodox Catholics live in fear of the next conclave, liberals are savoring the opportunity. Among the frontrunners are men who hint that they are willing to revolutionize Church architecture, both literally and figuratively.

Further, in past conclaves, conservatives have had the constitutional power to block the election of left-wing cardinals. However, they no longer possess this power. Due to Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, the next conclave will operate under a new set of election procedures:

If the balloting does not result in an election, even after the provisions of No. 74 have been fulfilled, the Cardinal electors shall be invited by the Camerlengo to express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. The election will then proceed in accordance with what the absolute majority of the electors decides.

Up until this Apostolic Constitution, a two-thirds majority was needed to elect the new Pope. The benefit of needing a two-thirds majority was obvious. If 51% of the cardinals attempted to elect a Cardinal Mahony-type, but 49% were conservative, the liberals could not elect their man, because the conservatives would be able to block him. The two sides would have to compromise until they reached an agreement.

Under the present system, there is nothing the conservatives can do to stop an extreme liberal from getting elected to the papacy. The majority rules. If 51% of the cardinals are liberals, then a real problem exists for the upcoming election.

Though this presents an unfortunate predicament, many Catholics are seemingly unafraid of the next election, confident that the Holy Spirit will guide the electors. Among many well-meaning Catholics, there is a notion that papal elections are infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit. Many times throughout this papacy, some notable contemporary theologians have stated, referring to Pope John Paul II, "This is the pope who the Holy Spirit wanted." However, there is no theological basis for believing that each pope elected is the pope who the Holy Spirit wanted. That is not to say that Pope John Paul II isn't the pope the Holy Spirit wanted, it is simply to say that we honestly don't know. With the exception of St. Peter, there is no theological basis for believing that any particular pope was the one that the Holy Spirit wanted.

The Church has never claimed for herself infallibility in papal elections. Quite to the contrary, some popes, such as Pope Julius II, have openly bribed their way into office. It is an affront to the Holy Spirit to claim that The Holy Spirit guided bribery.

The Holy Spirit no doubt provides the electors with the grace to pick an appropriate candidate, but this grace may or may not be cooperated with by men of free will. Pope John Paul II himself clearly understands that errant free will can play a significant role in papal elections. In Universi Dominici Gregis, he states:

With the same insistence shown by my Predecessors, I earnestly exhort the Cardinal electors not to allow themselves to be guided, in choosing the Pope, by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favour or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity.

The Holy Spirit does not guarantee a noble, virtuous saint as the pope, illustrated by the fact that some popes were ignoble, unvirtuous, and unsaintly. Our Catholic Faith teaches us however, that once appointed to the chair of Peter, the Pope is gifted with the charism of infallibility under a certain well-defined set of limitations. There is no doubt that the liberal cardinals can reject the grace of the Holy Spirit and choose a liberal intent on radically transforming the Church.


It might be helpful for the conservative Cardinal Electors to remember that the Catholic Church is a worldwide corporation. In the corporate world, if a company is involved in an Enron-like scandal, the best way to reverse negative public opinion is to go outside the company, not to promote from within. The Church is facing a similar problem, not only with the public but with the orthodox Catholics trying to persevere in the Church.

Whatever their decision, Catholics must pray that the Cardinal Electors accept the grace of God to elect the right man to govern the Church, and if it is God's will that he come from outside the College, let us pray that they have the strength and courage to make such an "astonishing choice". In this regard, we can pray that they answer the call of the Holy Father, who implored them:

Rather, having before their eyes solely the glory of God and the good of the Church, and having prayed for divine assistance, they shall give their vote to the person, even outside the College of Cardinals, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way. (Universi Dominici Gregis, 83)

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