Papal Succession

A Papal Succession Primer

An aging and ailing pope is inevitably cause for speculation as to who his successor will be -- and how he will be chosen. The ritual papal election has always attracted special attention, as detailed sacred procedures are followed to secure a legitimate succession of power. Here's a brief outline of how it's done:
When the Pope dies, the head of the Sacred College ofCardinals, or Camerlengo, verifies the death.  Standingover the deceased, he calls the pontiff by his baptismalname three times. Upon receiving no response, he announces the death and arranges for the Fisherman's ring -- inscribed with the name of the reigning pope -- and papal seal to be broken. Later, another ring will be made for the newly elected pope. The Camerlengo then prepares for the Pope's burial and the traditional nine  days of mourning. Assisted by three officials elected from the college, he directs the election of the pontiff's successor.

Fifteen to 20 days after the death of the Pope, the Sacred College of Cardinals meets for the election.
Hailing from every corner of the globe, the cardinals are handpicked by the pope to advise and help him.  There are currently 123 voting cardinals.

After a Mass of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter's Basilica, the cardinals enter a guarded annex of the Sistine
Chapel for the election process, known as a conclave.  Each cardinal swears an oath to protect the secrecy of
the election. Breaking the oath carries a penalty of immediate excommunication. Literally locked within the
walls of the annex, which is screened for bugging devices, the cardinals are sequestered from any
contact with the outside world. Entrances are sealed and curtains closed.

The next morning, the cardinals attend mass in the Sistine Chapel and the electoral session begins.
According to the reforms of Pope Paul VI, only cardinals under the age of 80 may vote. While for
centuries only cardinals have been elected pope, in theory, any adult male Roman Catholic is papabile, or
a potential candidate for the papacy.

The election is conducted in secret written ballots counted by the Camerlengo and his three assistants. In
the past, a pope needed two thirds of the vote plus one to be elected. In 1996, however, Pope John Paul II
changed this rule so that if the votes continue to be unsuccessful for 12 or 13 days, the cardinals may
agree by absolute majority (half plus one) to elect.

Two ballots are taken each morning and two each afternoon until a successful vote is completed. After
each voting session, ballots are burned. If the vote is inconclusive, a chemical substance is added to the
paper to produce black smoke. Billowing from the roof  of the Vatican Palace, the smoke is a message to the crowds watching in St. Peter's Square that the church is still without a pope.

When the college eventually reaches the final decision, each cardinal lowers a purple canopy over his chair,
leaving the elected Pope's canopy folded. The final ballots are burned and their white smoke signals a
successful election. The dean of the cardinals asks if the chosen member accepts the papacy. Upon
accepting, the new pontiff is made bishop of Rome and is honored by each of the cardinals.

The dean then steps out onto the balcony of the Vatican, shouting "Habemus papam!" ("We have a
Pope!") The new pontiff then appears to greet and bless the waiting world.

Can Popes Resign?

(The following was written in response to a question, prompted by the Rome rumor mill, about whether Catholic Popes can resign. It is included for your information.)

Canon Law, as revised in 1983, provides explicitly for the possibility of a Pope who resigns (Canon 332 Par. 2), and over the centuries there have been some Popes who have renounced their office or been forced to do so. The revision was done at the instigation of Pope John Paul 2 and the section on resignation was reportedly dictated personally by him.

I. Popes who, for one reason or another, resigned, renounced or abdicated the chair:

Clement 1 -- said to have renounced papacy after being exiled (97 AD) but no real evidence.

Pope St. Pontain resigned while in exile and imprisoned (235) to allow for the election of a succesor.

Benedict 9 (1045) driven out, renounced, recanted, resigned.

Celestine 5 (1294) abdicated and returned to his hermitage. (Boniface 8, his successor, in the "Liber Sextus" I, vii, 1, issued the following decree: "Whereas some curious persons, arguing on things of no great expediency, and rashly seeking, against the teaching of the Apostle, to know more than it is meet to know, have seemed, with little forethought, to raise an anxious doubt, whether the Roman Pontiff, especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honour: Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign. We, therefore, lest it should happen that in course of time this enactment should fall into oblivion, and the aforesaid doubt should revive the discussion, have placed it among other constitutions ad perpetuam rei memoriam by the advice of our brethren.")

Gregory 12 (1415) -- Council of Constance accepted his resignation. (At the fourteenth session (4 July, 1415) a Bull of Gregory XII was read which appointed Malatesta and Cardinal Dominici of Ragusa as his proxies at the council. The cardinal then read a mandatory of Gregory XII which convoked the council and authorized its succeeding acts. Hereupon Malatesta, acting in the name of Gregory XII, pronounced the resignation of the papacy by Gregory XII and handed a written copy of the resignation to the assembly. The cardinals accepted the resignation, retained all the cardinals that had been created by him, and appointed him Bishop of Porto and perpetual legate at Ancona. Two years later, before the election of the new pope, Martin V, Gregory XII died in the odour of sanctity.)

Source for all of the above: Catholic Encyclopedia


II. Sections of the Catholic Code of Canon Law (1983) concerning the Papacy (from, part of, the Vatican Canon Law English-language site)

                              SECTION I. THE SUPREME AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH (Cann. 330 - 367)
                                                  CHAPTER I. THE ROMAN PONTIFF AND THE COLLEGE OF BISHOPS
                                                            Art. 1. THE ROMAN PONTIFF

Canon 331   The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He is the head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the universal Church here on earth. Consequently, by virtue of his office, he has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power.

Canon 332.1  The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained Bishop.

332.2 Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is to be required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.

Canon 333.1  By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only has power over the universal Church, but also has pre-eminent ordinary power over all particular Churches and their groupings. This reinforces and defends the proper, ordinary and immediate power which the Bishops have in the particular Churches entrusted to their care.

333.2 The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling his office as supreme Pastor of the Church, is always joined in full communion with the other Bishops, and indeed with the universal Church. He has the right, however, to determine, according to the needs of the Church, whether this office is to be exercised in a personal or in a collegial manner.

333.3 There is neither appeal nor recourse against a judgment or a decree of the Roman Pontiff.

Canon 334  The Bishops are available to the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his office, to cooperate with him in various ways, among which is the Synod of Bishops. Cardinals also assist him, as do other persons and, according to the needs of the time, various institutes; all these persons and institutes fulfill their offices in his name and by his authority, for the good of all the Churches, in accordance with the norms determined by law.

Canon 335 When the Roman See is vacant, or completely impeded, no innovation is to be made in the governance of the universal Church. The special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed.