For only the third time in my life, and the second time in my living memory, the eyes of the Catholic world turn to Rome, where in an ancient tradition, the princes of the church–the Cardinals–will elect the next Vicar of Christ–the Catholic Pope.
For me, a collector of the eclectic, the Papal conclave that determines the successor to Peter is a fascinating institution. Many pundits and observers have sounded off on the minutiae of the ritual–the decision made below Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and before his version of the Last Judgement, the symbolic burning of unsuccessful ballots in a special oven, the white smoke of decision vs. the black smoke of stalemate wafting above St. Peter’s square, the “papabile” or “popeable” among the cardinals, the palace intrigue of Vatican insiders vs. cardinals from outside of Rome, and so on.
The conclave provides an opportunity to draw a comparison that I haven’t read much about–the parliamentary procedure of the conclave and its place in the history of deliberative, electoral colleges. Yes, that’s right. The medieval practice of papal selection is at its core, an electoral college, akin to the modern US Electoral College system that elects the President of the United States.
The idea of picking a guy who picks a guy to be your leader is very old. The Germans used their regional princes to elect the Holy Roman Emperor for a thousand years. The most famous of those Electors, the Elector of Hanover, awoke in 1714 to find himself next in line to the throne of England, when Queen Anne died. Some historians trace this idea, of some spokesperson for each tribe back to the Visigoths and Ostrogoths of the ancient Roman frontiers.
The pope has been selected in the same manner since the 1060’s–about the same time the Holy Roman Empire was at its apex in the “electoral college” department. Prior to this, the pope was selected, and submitted to the approval of the masses in Rome. This tradition persists, in the declaration to the gathered faithful in St. Peter’s square to the ringing of bells and in the words–Habemus Papam. We have a Pope. Of course, the decision is a fait accompli before the new pope appears from the papal apartment balcony.
You can almost imagine what it might be like if the crowd could still “advise and consent” to the new pope….
“The crowd has grown since the white smoke appeared from the chimney, the billows lifting toward the heavens, the bells ringing, the announcement ‘Habemus Papam!’ Hundreds of thousands are in the streets, pilgrims from every corner of the globe. Here he comes, we think. There is some commotion on the balcony. It’s….It’s….Aw Shucks. The multitudes groan in disappointment. They picked an American, and he will go by the papal name, Bubba the First. The people declaim him, they shout him down. They have rejected Bubba, his reign–mere minutes!”
In fact, one can imagine the bias and passionate Italian majority, who take a significant siesta during the Sede Vacante period, would groan a little. Italians have a sort of expectation that the Pope should be Italian. After all, for 600 years this was the case until the Pole, Karol Wojtyla, became John Paul II.
Ostensibly, the cardinals as electors speak for their respective diocese. Unlike the selection of the Holy Roman Emperor, the faithful believe the will of God influences the cardinals in the selection of the next pope.
Across the pond, Americans went through their conclave of a kind in 2013. The presidential election in November, as most Americans know, tallies the individual votes of citizens in their respective states to determine how that state’s electors–individuals chosen by their state legislatures–will vote for president. The electors meet after the November election (officially the second Wednesday in the month of December) to sign the state’s official ballot as elector representing one of the state’s electoral votes. Even then, the election is not over. The president is not officially elected until January 6. The certified state ballot is sent to the Congress, where in a joint session, the Congress hears each states vote and accedes to the result.
Those state electors are relatively unknown to the public. A state’s electors–the people who cast the vote on behalf of the masses–can be as varied as favorite sons, power brokers, donors and the party faithful. They are in fact selected by the political parties. The winning party’s slate gets to certify the state ballot.
The electors are to vote the will of the citizens in their state, but on a rare occasion, an elector may vote for another candidate in protest. Those curmudgeons are known–in irony for this post–as a faithless elector. In the past three examples of faithless electors, two were faithless by mistake. An elector in 1988 accidentally reversed the Dukakis/Bentsen ticket with their vote, affording Lloyd Bentsen a lone electoral vote for president. In 2004, John Edwards received an electoral vote from someone from Minnesota. The faithless elector remains unknown to this day, as the state electors file one ballot for their state, with each elector voting anonymously.
The American Electoral College is elitist by design, as the early founders of the country did not trust the mob–or in more polite terms–the public. They removed the election of the president from direct vote to a vanguard selected on their behalf. Every election cycle, the American public mulls why the country must be bound by a practice that has colonial, if not medieval roots. Two of the most powerful jobs in the world–the American presidency and the Catholic Pope–are filled indirectly.
This brings us back to the conclave. What would a direct election of the Pope look like? Certainly, if based solely on population, the next pope should hail from Latin America and Africa, and not Europe and North America. If the Catholics held a global vote, would the flock select a non-European outright? Would they select a reformer more liberal minded than the conservative Vatican bureaucracy would prefer?
We will never know. In fact, we really will never know what calculus goes into selecting the next pope. But we do know that old traditions die hard, and the idea of some guys voting for some guy on your behalf has very deep roots.