A Historical Perspective of the Papal Conclave
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: When it comes to electing a new pope, conclaves have sometimes gone as predicted and sometimes they’ve provided their share of surprises. For a little history of the twists and turns, I’m joined by Christopher Bellitto, a Church historian at Kean University.
Professor, with the clearing of the hall, the locking of the doors, the isolation of the cardinals, is this conclave being conducted in a form cardinals from centuries earlier would recognize?
CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Mostly. 1274 is the big dividing line. 1274 is the first time that we have a conclave that follows cannon law as we know. What happened was that for about a thousand years in the Church’s life, the pope — and we can’t really think of him as the head of this huge thing called the Vatican for a thousand years — but the bishop of Rome was selected by the Bushes and the Clintons and the Kennedys and the Trumps and the Roosevelts of the city of Rome.
And they would gather together in various ways — sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors — and kind of make known who their favorite son was. There’s a legend that in 256 Pope Fabian was chosen out of great chaos because a dove came down and sat on his shoulder — the dove, of course, the Holy Spirit.
But the business really happens in 1268. There’s a “conclave,” that is, a bunch of cardinals walking around in the City of Perturbo for about two and a half years, sometimes voting, sometimes not. And the people of Perturbo got so tired of the whole thing that they locked them up in a room. And when that didn’t work, they ripped the roof off and started to throw raw food down on them. One thinks of day-old cannoli and bread and things like that. And pretty quickly they elected a pope. And that pope was named Gregory.
And three years later in 1274 he put into cannon law at the Second Council of Leon, the conclave as we know it, saying that they should be locked up cum clave, “with a key,” in Latin; it goes into English and Italian. And it’s interesting in that document, in the second Council of Leon Cannons, it says “aware that we are of the recent tumult, we put these things into play.” So they didn’t want a repetition of that. Now, since that time, most conclaves have taken place in locked rooms, not always in the Sistine Chapel. You have to remember, Michelangelo didn’t paint that until the early 16th century, the early 1500s, but usually in a room somewhere in Italy, not always in Rome.
RAY SUAREZ: Has that cloistering and privation and the emphasis on them being isolated from the world had its intended effect? Did the cardinals always buckle down and do their work?
CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Not always. In 1740, for instance, there was a conclave for six months. But more recently it’s been one or two or three days. You see, there’s been a lot of attention played on this word “secrecy.” And, yes, there is an element of secrecy, but it’s probably better to look at it as confidentiality, as a sequestered jury.
You know, there comes a time after all the tumult in a courtroom where people have to go in a room and be quiet and settle down and think, and in this case, pray about the choice that they’re going to make. It’s hard to do that with a lot of things going on. However, there’s secrecy and there’s secrecy. For instance, in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the people who were passing the dishes back and forth, the dirty dishes during the conclave, used to chalk on the bottom of the plates the names of the cardinals and their tally counts. So pattypower.com is simply a high-tech version of some of this.
RAY SUAREZ: Do we find out after the fact how the voting has gone? Are there records from the conclave that are kept so we can see, for instance, how the voting went in the conclaves of the 50s, for instance?
CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Yes, you have to look at kind of around the year 1800 as another one of those dividing lines. People talked about secrecy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but they didn’t burn ballots. In fact, there’s a very talented Church historian at Virginia Tech named Fred Baumgartner, who went into the Vatican archives and found the ballots and was able to say that in this election this cardinal got “X” number of ballots. And he has a wonderful anecdote that in the year 1655 the cardinals just couldn’t settle on anyone, so that 21 of the ballots are marked nullos, nobody.
RAY SUAREZ: Have the cardinals in recent conclaves represented the world better? I guess there was a time when they were almost exclusively from Europe and the Mediterranean, right?
CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Well, they used to say that the sun never set on the Roman Empire but that’s because for the world — for them the world was Europe all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall down to North Africa. So you could say that Christianity was represented by cardinals of the world but as the world grew, the cardinals grew.
And the person who really was the genius behind this was Paul VI. It was Paul VI who said, “We truly are now a global Church.” And he began to appoint cardinals all over the globe and also bring bishops and cardinals into the Vatican to bring their ideas. But I think when you really look at it and you really look at the technology, this is the first 24/7 conclave for a 24/7 world.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do the cardinals always elect one of their own number as the next pope?
CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Surely that’s going to happen. The last time that happened was in 1378. And there was a lot of bad karma connected to that election. The papacy had been in Avignon for 75 years. The Romans wanted a Roman. The French wanted the papacy to move back from Rome to Avignon. So they went outside and they elected an archbishop who was Neapolitan by birth but had spent in career in Avignon. It looked like a pretty good compromise.
Well, he was mentally unstable, and he physically assaulted one cardinal, called another half-wit. A couple of months later the cardinals who elected him said, no, maybe that election wasn’t valid. They elected someone else; that started the great western schism when there were two and then three popes, three papacies, three Colleges of Cardinals. They don’t want to make that mistake again.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, thanks for being with us.
CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Thanks for having me.