The conclave will begin on Tuesday: With no clear candidate, the field is wide open. Reaching a decision will not be easy. But the cardinals have the benefit of an institution that has gradually developed and changed over time. It is the oldest process of election by secret ballot still maintained in the world – and it has learned a thing or two.
At first, a pope was chosen by his predecessor. By the second century, Rome's bishop was chosen in the same way as other bishops – by popular acclamation. Not until the 11th century did the conclave begin to emerge.
It came about to prevent factionalism and interference. In nomine Domini (1059) made the cardinals (at first only the cardinal-bishops, later the cardinal-priests and cardinal-deacons also) the sole electors of the pope. From 1179, the two-thirds majority – still required – was established. The election took place where the pope had died.
The modern conclave system came in after the death of Pope Clement IV in Viterbo in 1268. For more than two years, the 16 cardinals argued over his successor, until Viterbo's mayor, backed by the townspeople, confined the cardinals to the palace. When this had no effect, he reduced their food supply and removed the roof; only then did they reach a decision, electing Pope Gregory X (who was in Palestine at the time).
It was Pope Gregory X who laid down that the cardinals were to wait for 10 days until after a pope’s death to allow absent cardinals time to join them (a rule that remained in place until Pope Pius XI in the 1920s extended it to 15 days, because Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston had arrived after his election.)
They would then enter a room in the place the pope had died and remain shut under lock and key, cum clavis, until they chose a new pope. If they went three days without a decision, their meals would be reduced in quantity.
In 1311, Pope Clement V decreed that every cardinal, unless deposed, was to attend the conclave and vote – a stipulation that remained in force until 1970, when Pope Paul VI prohibited cardinals older than 80 from voting.
Since 1378, only cardinals have been elected. But not until the 19th century were they elected for the modern reason – outstanding service to the Church; for centuries, the reward was for service to secular powers. The 15th century was the nadir: the cardinals were mostly relatives and servants of Europe's more important kings. But Leo X (1513-1521) struck a blow, creating 31 new cardinals in a single day. It was Leo's appointed cardinals who elected his successor, the Dutchman Adrian IV – the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II in 1978.
Pope Pius IV (1559-1565) made several reforms still in place today: He established the secret ballot, assigned rooms according to a ballot, and prevented communication with people outside the conclave. Other reforms under other popes followed. In Aeterni Patris (1621) Pope Gregory XV established the basic law of conclaves followed to this day – although each modern pope has modified it in some minor respects.
Gregory's constitution required cardinals to attend both voting sessions, established three scrutators to count the votes, and, while forbidding the cardinals to make secret pacts or agreements, made clear that the provision "shall not exclude an exchange of opinion or understanding in the matter of the papal election." This allowed cardinals then and since to conduct the negotiations that lead to the vital two-thirds majority.
Conclaves have struggled to be free from political interference. Most papal elections in the 16th century were under the shadow of Spanish influence; in the 17th century it was France that dominated. In the 18th century the jus exclusivae – effectively a veto – was claimed by the emperors of the time. It was used for the last time in 1903.
For the last 200 years conclaves have taken place in the Vatican only. Until the conclave of 2005, the cardinals were billeted where they could be within the walls of the Vatican – an uncomfortable experience for many. But Pope John Paul II built the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a spacious Vatican residence, where the cardinals stayed in 2005 and will again next week.
Pope Pius IX in 1871 and 1874 introduced more far-reaching reforms, preventing the College of Cardinals from exercising papal powers – thus encouraging an early decision – and demanding secrecy about the proceedings. And he broadened the College to include wider representation for non-Italian cardinals, thus reducing the chance of Italian government interference. Since then, the Italian influence in the election of a pope has steadily diminished.
The history of conclaves is colorful, but also beautiful. It is a human process, which leaves room – hopefully – for the Holy Spirit to act. In the next posts looking at modern conclaves, I'll explain how.
Austen Ivereigh, who will be blogging for us daily from Rome on the papal transition, is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk). A former communications director to the Archbishop emeritus of Westminster (England), Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, he accompanied the cardinal to Rome in 2005 for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and election of Pope Benedict XVI. He is the author of "How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice" (OSV, $13.95).