By Russell Shaw
Popes naturally have a lot on their minds. On the evidence, it appears that one of the things they think about most is how to elect a pope.
Over the centuries, one product of this preoccupation has been a series of documents in which popes have revised and re-revised the rules for papal elections. Now Pope Benedict XVI is the latest to have a go at it.
Reversing a decision by Pope John Paul II allowing a pope to be elected by a simple majority under certain circumstances, Pope Benedict issued a decree that reinstates an earlier rule requiring a two-thirds majority, with no exceptions.
In doing so, he made it clear once again that, much as he reveres his predecessor, by no means does he feel bound by all his decisions. In the present instance, Pope Benedict said that returning to the old two-thirds rule for election of a pope was a response to serious requests.
Pope John Paul laid down his rules for the conclave -- the gathering of cardinals to elect a pope -- in a 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis ("The Lord's Whole Flock").
He specified that, at the start, the requirement of a two-thirds majority to elect a pope would be in effect. But if no one was chosen after 33 or 34 ballots stretching over 13 days, the cardinal-electors would have the option of switching to election by a simple majority. That decision would itself require only a majority vote.
Pope Benedict's decree returning to the two-thirds requirement, come what may, was contained in a document called a motu proprio released June 26. He did not explain the reason for the change, but it isn't hard to guess.
Under the procedure envisaged in the 1996 document, if a narrow majority favoring a particular candidate emerged early in the conclave, it would only have to hold out for a few days until the procedure change and it had its way.
The election of a pope under such circumstances would certainly be valid. But it's generally acknowledged that the interests of the Church are best served if the man elected pope is the favorite of a commanding majority of the cardinals rather than -- potentially -- a one-vote majority.
Pope Benedict's new procedures remove the latter possibility.
At the start of the conclave, the two-thirds requirement is in place. If no one has been elected after 13 days, the cardinals are to pause for a day of prayer, reflection and dialogue among themselves.
When voting resumes, the candidates will be the two men with the most votes on the last ballot, though at this point neither of them will be permitted to vote. But -- in a departure from Pope John Paul's innovation -- a two-thirds majority of those voting will still be required for either man to become pope.
The obvious difficulty with this procedure is that it reopens the door to what Pope John Paul presumably wished to head off -- a stalemated conclave. Arguing against this eventuality, however, is the cardinals' presumably strong impulse to find consensus on a candidate for the sake of the Church.
While this revision of the conclave rules is significant in itself, it would be a gross overinterpretation to see in it anything more than remote preparation for the next papal election, at a time impossible to predict. Although Pope Benedict turned 80 last April, there is no reason to think that his health is anything but excellent.
All the same, he often does refer to his age and his mortality.
In the foreword to his best-selling new book "Jesus of Nazareth" (Doubleday, $24.95), for instance, he says he is working on a second volume but thought it wise to publish volume one now, "as I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given."
Inevitably, too, the new motu proprio suggests the question of what provisions for the governance of the Church Pope Benedict may have made in the event that he becomes disabled in office. Procedures covering this contingency were rumored to have been prepared under Pope John Paul, but if Pope Benedict has anything like that in his desk drawer, it's one of the Vatican's best-kept secrets.
Meanwhile, a common complaint heard around Rome these days is that, in one journalist's words, "personnel and structural changes have been moving at a snail's pace at the Vatican." Maybe so. But publication of the papal election document -- and of a motu proprio on the Tridentine Mass -- shows that the pope is working on multiple tasks in his own careful but industrious manner.
In recent weeks, he has made top-level, or near top-level, appointments in several Vatican agencies. No sooner did he return from the longest trip of his pontificate so far -- to a continent-wide bishops' meeting in Brazil -- than he was off to Assisi for a symbolic visit dramatizing his commitment to peace. And the round of papal speeches, audiences and liturgical events goes on.
Pope Benedict is hardly the dynamo that Pope John Paul was in the early years of his pontificate. But Pope John Paul, bowed by age and illness, was no dynamo either by the time he turned 80. For a man his age, Pope Benedict XVI continues to carry the many burdens of the papacy surprisingly well.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor to OSV.
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