How does the Catholic Church determine who will be pope?

Present-day procedures for electing a pope, who serves the church until his death, vary from those of earlier times. Before the 300s, the clergy of Rome and the outlying areas cast votes in what was essentially a local papal election. Throughout history, some of Europe’s powerful rulers tried to influence the outcome of papal elections in order to establish a pope who would be favorable to their leadership. This interference in the process sometimes resulted in disputes over who was the rightful pope, with more than one pope claiming authority based on the support of emperors or factions within the church. (Those claiming to be popes but who were considered illegitimate are called antipopes.)

The process observed by the Roman Catholic Church today was established over time. The first important decision came in 1059 when Pope Nicholas II (c. 980–1061) declared that papal electors must be cardinals. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council established that all cardinals have an equal vote and that popes may only be elected by a two-thirds majority; this came after Pope Alexander III (c. 1105–1181) had been opposed by three antipopes. Pope Gregory X (1210–1276), after being elected to the papacy following a three-year vacancy, assembled the Council of Lyon in 1274, which decreed that the cardinals must meet within 10 days of a pope’s death to determine the papacy. Further, the Council required that the cardinals remain together in strict seclusion until they have elected a new pope.

Today, when a pope dies, the dean of the Sacred College notifies all cardinals of the vacancy. The cardinals convene at Vatican City, in a meeting that is required to begin within 20 days of the pope’s death. Any of three electoral processes may be used: ballot (which is most common), unanimous voice vote, or the unanimous decision of a committee of 9 to 15 delegates. Four votes are taken a day (two in the morning and two in the afternoon) until there is a two-thirds majority vote. As soon as a decision is reached, the dean asks the pope-elect if he accepts the position. Once he accepts, he is considered pope and has full authority over the church. He then proceeds to select a name, which he announces to the cardinals. Following these private meetings, the results of which are eagerly awaited by devout Roman Catholics, white smoke is sent up a chimney of the Vatican palace, signaling to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that the election is complete. (The smoke is created by burning ballots; ballots from elections in which a two-thirds majority was not achieved are also burned but in a way that creates black smoke. In this way, the public is apprised of the cardinals’ decision-making process.) The oldest cardinal has the honor of making the official announcement to the people in St. Peter’s Square. Then the people are blessed by the new pope in his first official act. The coronation of the pope is held later.


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