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Electing a pope is a complicated, mysterious process

popebenedict.jpg
During his 2008 visit to the United States, Pope Bendict XVI visited and spoke at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Catholic University of America.)
Dr. Lee Cheek
Dr. Lee Cheek

Pope Benedict XVI resigned Feb. 28 after nearly eight years as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Lee Cheek Jr., professor of political science and religion at the University of North Georgia, discusses the complicated and mysterious process for electing a new pope. Cheek earned his divinity degree at Duke University and his doctorate at the Catholic University of America. He has written several books and scholarly articles on politics and religion and currently serves as a senior fellow of the Alexander Hamilton Institute and the Academy of Philosophy and Letters.

How unusual is the current status of the papacy?

The last time a pope resigned was Pope Gregory XII in 1415 during the "Great Schism," but canon law does allow for the potential for a pope to resign. Pope Benedict's resignation has become a media event because it is so rare, but his resignation is not a statement about Pope Benedict XVI's papacy or the status of the Roman Catholic Church itself. I believe it is a very thoughtful approach to the end of his pontificate from a man who is one of the most gifted theologians of the 21st century, and I expect he will continue his scholarly writings as Pope Emeritus.

How has the process for electing a pope changed throughout the centuries?

There are many things that we don't know because we do not have a lot of observation or knowledge of the world inside the Vatican, and electing a pope is a very secretive process. For the most part, the process is largely unchanged since the 13th century. In 1996, then-Pope John Paul II issued a new apostolic constitution that governs the election of the pope to allow for a 15-day waiting period before the process begins. On Feb. 25, Benedict XVI rescinded that waiting period for the election of his successor to allow for a quick succession of power. With the conclave expected to begin by mid-March, we will likely have a new pope before the Christian holy week.

What is the process for electing the pope?

When the reign of a pope ends, the College of Cardinals, also called the conclave, is summoned to the Vatican; the next pope typically is among them. There currently are 183 cardinals living in 52 countries; only the 117 cardinals younger than 80 are eligible to vote for the pope.

The cardinals stay together at Saint Martha's House throughout the process and have no interaction with the outside world, though they will have discussions among themselves and will potentially advocate certain candidates. When the conclave is ready to begin, the voting cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel and the doors are sealed with ribbons and wax.

Electing a new pope is a very holy and spiritual process and the conclave begins each day with prayer. During voting, the cardinals sit across from each other in two rows, ballots are distributed, and each cardinal marks his ballot with a name and carries it to a gold plate at the front of the chapel. Ballots are transferred to a sacred chalice and the votes are tallied. The dean of the conclave announces who has received the most votes and the process is repeated until one candidate receives a two-thirds majority. The ballots are burned after each vote; black smoke means no pope has been elected, white smoke means a pope has been elected.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI, was elected pope in 24 hours after just two votes, but it has taken as long as a year in other cases. Typically, the process takes a couple of weeks.

Things move quickly after a pope is elected; the dean of the conclave immediately asks the candidate if he accepts. If so, the cardinals pledge their allegiance to the new pope and he is immediately presented the white vestments worn only by the pope.

The world is introduced to the new pope when the dean of the College of Cardinals steps out onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to proclaim "Habemus Papam," Latin for "We have a pope."

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