On the eve of the papal Conclave I am posting a piece adapted from an article by Edward Pentin on the Zenit website, to which I have added some further reflection and points of my own.
Some of the earliest papal elections are filled with political power struggles and interference that would be a hallmark of many later conclaves. In 687, after clashes between local clergy, the army, and a conniving archdeacon of Rome, electors simply plucked a priest called Sergius from the midst of the people, sent him to the Imperial palace where he was acknowledged as Pope, and then hurried to the Lateran where he was consecrated pontiff. Surprisingly, given the arbitrary nature of the choice, Pope Sergius I went on to become an accomplished Successor of Peter.
A similar unceremonious election took place in 731 when, during the burial of Pope Gregory II, a priest was again seized, this time from the funeral procession, and rushed off to the Lateran where he was made Pope Gregory III by popular acclamation. As Papal elections were often compromised by outside forces, in particular lay interference, a number of subsequent attempts were made to restrict the voters to clergy and bishops. After electors rigged his election, Pope Stephen III held a synod in 769 to try to ensure that only cardinal priests and deacons were allowed to be electors (until then they were leading clergy, army officers, their troops and leading citizens).
By the ninth century, attempts were made to limit interference in papal elections from Emperors and magnates of the Holy Roman Empire which, owing to the close relationship between the faith and temporal power, when Emperors could, and did, appoint or impose a Pope, had made the process an even greater hot-bed of corruption and skulduggery. Indeed it was the Imperal appointment of Pope Leo IX which paved the way for reform in the mid-eleventh century
As part of this the first major reform of Ppapal elections was in 1059, when Pope Nicholas II issued the decree Nomine Domine – In the name of the Lord. This decreed that Popes were to be elected by cardinal bishops alone. The rest of the cardinals would then be asked to give their assent and after that, the clergy and laity of Rome. The intention was to remove papal elections from the control of noble Roman families such as the Crescentii and Tusculani, and the vagaries of the Roman crowd. As Peter Damian, the reforming Benedictine of that time, wrote: Cardinal bishops do the electing, other clergy give their assent and the people are able to give their applause.
However this did not resolve the problem and unseemly power struggles would continue, leading occasionally to antipopes – those chosen by a rival faction or a rival power in the person of the Emperor who did not the legitimately elected pontiff.
Pope Nicholas II's successor, Pope Alexander II, faced a rival in the person of Cadalus, the bishop of Parma, who was put forward by German powers because he would be more sympathetic to the Imperial cause. Cadalus was never installed as Pope Honorius II, and simply went back to being the bishop of Parma once efforts to have him installed were exhausted, although he never abandoned his claim to the papacy. The same threat was faced by Pope Gregory VII who was forced to flee from Rome, dying in exile.
In 1130 the cardinals met in two seperate groups in Rome and elected both Pope Innovent II and Pope Anacletus II - the latter has been adjudged the antipope by history, but the matter took a decade to resolve.
Conclaves – which means "with key" indicating that they were secured from outside influence by enforced isolation – came into being in 1179 and the Third Lateran Council of the great canon lawyer Pope Alexander III - who had himself faced an Imperial sponsored antipope. In order to avoid dissension in future papal elections, Pope Alexander introduced the rule that any new Pope had to have a two thirds majority. All cardinals were to vote, not just cardinal bishops. This remained the rule until Pope Pius XII, who then made it two-thirds plus one - so that the successful candidate did not secure the Holy See on his own vote. Pope John Paul II reduced it back to two thirds, with a simple majority after 34 votes. Pope Benedict XVI made further changes to the process in 2007, reinstating the two thirds rule, but introduced a run-off vote after 34 unsuccessful voting rounds whereby everyone but the two leading candidates are eliminated. The first of the two to reach the necessary two thirds is then elected.
The Alexandine reforms only partially worked, and divisions and deadlock would continue. In 1261, the cardinals were deeply divided, and eventually looked outside their own and plumped for a non-cardinal – Jacques Pantaleon, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He would undoubtedly have been surprised: Pantaleon just happened to be visiting the papal curia on diocesan business at the time.
Arguably the most bizarre conclave took place in 1271. The Holy See had papacy had been vacant since 1268 and cardinals were struggling to decide on a Pope for a year and a half because of the influence and interference of external powers. Reflecting the frustration many felt, Raniero Gatti, 'Captain of the people', locked the cardinals up in the Papal palace, had the roof taken off, restricted their diet, and surrounded the palace with soldiers. Some cardinals were taken ill as they were left exposed to the elements.
Such protracted conclaves led Pope Gregory X to issue the decree Ubi periculum – 'Where there is danger' - in 1274. Among the rules, he ordered that all future conclaves take place in the city where the Pope died, wait ten days for all the Cardinals to arrive, and that all Cardinals live in common in one room with no partition or curtain. They also had to be completely locked in - no one was allowed to enter, communicate with them, nor they with anyone else. Moreover, after three days without an election, they were allowed only one dish at lunch and supper, then after five days, given only bread, wine and water until they elected a Pope. A number of provisos existed when cardinals were taken ill or needed to attend to urgent business.
Ubi periculum was soon to be temporarily rescinded and protracted conclaves would return. The one following the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292 was particularly divided between the factions in the Roman nobility, the Orsini and Colonna families. After nearly two years of deadlock, in 1294 a frustrated King Charles II of Naples drew up a list of his own. After that was rejected, he called on an elderly and holy hermit he knew, Pietro del Morrone, and got him to write a letter upbraiding the Cardinals for their dilatoriness. The Dean of the College of Cardinals read out the letter and said he would vote for Morrone to be Pope. The rest of the college followed suit, leading Morrone to be dragged to Rome and made Pope Celestine V.
As Pope, he reinstated Pope Gregory X's decree. But elderly, ill, and as far as he was concerned, unable to govern as Pope, Celestine resigned from the papacy in that same year of 1294 (Pope Benedict XVI has a devotion to Celestine and left his enthronement pallium on his remains in 2009). He was succeeded by Pope Boniface VIII who incorporated Ubi periculum into the canon law of the Church in the Liber Sext of the Corpus Juris.
If by the Avignon period the Conclave had become established and legislated for it did not prevent othe rproblems, such as a two year delay in electing after the death of Pope Clement V in 1314; the election of Pope John XXII is recounted in Maurice Druon's splendid saga of the origins of the Hundred Years War.
The return to Rome of Pope Gregory XI in 1376 and his death in 1378 led to th diastrous events of the next election. The Cardinals, surrounded and in danger of invasion by the Roman mob demanding a Roman, or at least an Italian pope, elected Bartolomeo Prignano, Archbishop of Bari, a curial official they thought they could control. This was the last time anon-cardinal was elected - as Pope Urban VI he was in no way tractable and the Cardinals gradually withdrew from Rome, met again, pleaded that they had acted under duress in electing him and elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII. Thus began the Great Schism.
It ended in 1417 with the election during the Council of Constance of Pope Martin V. On this one occasion the Cardinals were joined as electors by representitives of the five "Nations" which made up the Council in the wool warehose by the lake at Constance which can still be seen.
More Conclaves have included those of the Renaissance, with stories, which may well be fanciful, of Cardinals being bribed by successful candidates for their votes. Between 1590 and 1592, there were no less than four conclaves in 18 months.
In 1740 the conclave would last six months, during which four of the 68 cardinals died. The conclave of 1769 witnessed an unprecedented event with the visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and his brother Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany who arrived incognito in Rome on March 6 and were allowed to enter the conclave. The Emperor stayed there two weeks, freely debating with the electors. Fortunately, he did not press them but only expressed the wish for the election of a Pope who would be able to carry out his duties with the proper respect for the secular rulers. A further lengthy conclave took place from October 1774 to February 1775, leading to the election of Pope Pius VI.
Conclave procedures have changed considerably since then, as have the fortunes of the Papacy. After the death in captivity of Pope Pius in 1799 his successor, Pope Pius VII was elected and crowned in Venice in 1800. Following the loss of Papal control of Rome in 1870 Disraeli offered Malta to the Cardinals as a place for the conclave of 1878, but it was held in the Vatican, as have been all subsequent ones.
Two methods of choosing a Pope – by inspiration (cardinals nominate a candidate and greeted with unanimous acclaim) and compromise (choice is made by a mediating committee) – have long since been dropped and were formally abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1996, and only scrutiny, that is by secret ballot, requiring the now customary two thirds majority, remains.
In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI introduced the age limit of 80 for electors, and 120 as the maximum number of voting cardinals. Blessed Pope John Paul II, meanwhile, in his 1996 decree ordered that conclaves must always take place in the Sistine Chapel. Previous Popes recommended the chapel, but earlier conclaves have been held in a variety of churches in Rome and other cities. Both in 2007 and on the eve of his abdication Pope Benedict XVI introduced further adjustments to the procedures; the most recent can be seen in 'Motu Proprio' Apostolic Letter Regarding the Election of the Roman Pontiff .
The Conclave which commences tomorrow will be the 75th in the life of the Church – historians date the first as taking place in 1295 when Pope Boniface VIII inserted Pope Gregory X's decree into canon law.