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Pope-selection process was not always so secretive
Scripps Howard News Service


April 18, 2005

The election of a new pope wasn't always as secretive as it is today.

Historians say the activities of Vatican conclaves were very public affairs in the last days of the Roman Empire and in medieval times. Today's secrecy rules were only imposed in the last century, largely because leaks to the press about picking the new pope gave the Vatican heartburn.

Frederic Baumgartner, a history professor at Virginia Tech, said secrecy rules were also part of Vatican efforts to seal off the selection process from meddling by rival emperors and monarchs who once had veto powers over who was selected - and sometimes used them.

"In its setting and ceremony it appears to be thoroughly medieval, but in many of its details it is only a century old," said Baumgartner, author of "Behind Locked Doors: A History of Papal Elections."

Baumgartner said that, under the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first of the Christian emperors, picking a new bishop of Rome was a very public affair. "Since Constantine was the head of Christianity, he made the decision, and he and his successors guided the choice" of a new pope.

"My impression of this process is that prominent individuals would speak until a consensus took place. There was never an actual vote taken, so it wasn't a formal election where they counted ballots," he said.

It was not until 1059 that church reformers asserted the clergy as a separate class with its own rules and independent views and insisted that the church would elect the pope on its own.

When Henry IV became Holy Roman emperor at age 6, cardinals claimed their independence by electing Nicholas II as pope. Nicholas then issued a decree stating that, in the future, only cardinals had the right to select a new pontiff, and establishing what became the conclaves of today. The meetings continued in public for a few centuries more.

Baumgartner said the reforms didn't stop outsiders from interfering, either through influence, bribes or by exercising a royal exclusion or veto. Franz Joseph, head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cast the final veto in 1903 when he refused to allow the popular pro-French Cardinal Rampolla to be elected pope.

Medieval conclaves were spectacular and very costly events, as cardinals were accompanied by huge retinues and meetings often lasted many months. There was betting on the outcome. Baumgartner said that cardinals and their assistants often laid bets, too, with the Venetian ambassador regularly reporting the odds in dispatches home.

In 1243, the people of Rome locked up the cardinals when they couldn't agree on a new pope after a year and a half of deliberations. The conclave (from the Latin "cum clave," for "with a key") soon decided on Innocent IV.

Conclaves weren't always held in Rome.

When cardinals couldn't agree after three-and-a-half years of haggling, the citizens of Viterbo, Italy, who had to pay for feeding the visitors, locked the cardinals in. The locals also took the roof off the building and put the assembly on a diet of bread and water to speed up deliberations. Two cardinals died in the process, but they settled on Gregory X. That was back in 1271.

Gregory imposed reforms restricting cardinals to one servant each and directing that, in the future, they would all be locked in a single room with one plate of food and a bowl of soup each - a spartan menu further reduced after five days to bread, water and wine. Gregory also decreed that cardinals could not draw incomes during a conclave nor could they conduct any other business except defending the church.

Intensifying political and theological disputes sparked the Great Schism in 1378, a period where two and sometimes three candidates were elected pope and who ruled from Italy and France. The schism ended with the election in Constance, Germany, of Martin V in 1417 and a decision to hold future conclaves in Rome, where the Sistine Chapel was built to house them. All but six of the conclaves since have been held there.

Pius II, elected in 1458, left a detailed account of the jockeying that led to his election. He described how cardinals plotted in the toilets and wrestled each other in the aisles as "the richer and more powerful members begged, promised, threatened, and some, shamelessly casting aside all decency, pleaded their own cause and claimed the papacy as their right."

Chester Gillis, a theologian at Georgetown University in Washington, said conclaves were chaotic affairs. "Was there political wrangling? Yes, there was," he said. Gillis said that papal secular holdings in Italy during the Renaissance made the pope a significant political leader that today's popes do not have.

Italian city-states and their powerful families controlled the elections in the 15th century. And later, in 1549, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Henry II of France battled each other to get their nominee appointed. The diplomat whom Charles sent to Rome confided to his monarch that he had sewn up so many connections that Charles "will know when they urinate in this conclave."

Angered by the blatant politicking in the 1621 conclave that elected him, Gregory XV ordered an end to the voice vote and introduced the secret ballots in hopes of reducing factionalism. But historians say the papers of Europe's leaders show their efforts to influence conclaves continued until 1903. That was when Pius X, infuriated at press disclosures of Franz Joseph's veto of Cardinal Rampolla, ordered that conclave proceedings be kept secret on pain of excommunication. After a cardinal's diary was offered at auction in 1922, the Vatican ordered any notes that cardinals take during conclaves be collected and burned.

"We know less about the conclaves of the 20 century than we do about those of the 16th century," Baumgartner said.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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