Synodality and electing the Bishop of Rome

electing the pope

“Over new plan to elect pope, 3 cardinals threaten to quit.”

That headline appeared in the October 6, 1972 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

“If insiders’ reports are accurate, Pope Paul is faced with a threatened palace revolt over proposed changes in the procedures used to elect a pope,” wrote Desmond O’Grady, the now-deceased Australian who was NCR’s very first Rome correspondent.

O’Grady identified the three men who warned they would resign as Cardinal Franjo Seper, the Yugoslavian who was then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and two Italians — Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri (head of the Congregation for Bishops) and Cardinal Giuseppe Siri (archbishop of Genoa).

He said these three senior clerics feared Paul VI would cave into demands to substantially alter who could participate in the conclave that elects the Roman Pontiff.

The new plan evidently was to allow the presidents of national episcopal conferences to be part of the electoral body and to restrict the vote of the cardinals to only those who were in charge of Vatican offices or local dioceses at the time of the “sede vacante” (i.e. at the death or resignation of the pope).

Episcopal collegiality in the spirit of Vatican II

The proposal had been around for some time. One of its most vocal advocates was Cardinal Michele Pellegrino of Turin in Northern Italy.

Almost immediately after Paul VI named him bishop in September 1965, just a month before the start of the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pellegrino began clamouring for changes to the conclave’s membership.

His views found substantial support among a good number of Council Fathers, but also stiff opposition from several heavyweights who were fixtures of the Roman Curia’s old guard.

The opponents claimed any change in the papal electoral system could undermine the Bishop of Rome’s standing as the Vicar of Christ and would reduce the pope to a sort of president of the combined local Churches.

But those who supported Cardinal Pellegrino’s proposal — and they exist even to this day — believed that a conclave restricted to cardinals, which the Roman Pontiff chooses independently and at his own discretion, was not in line with the principle of episcopal collegiality in the spirit of Vatican II.

One of the most outspoken on this point was Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Malines-Brussels (Belgium).

Pope Francis converges with Cardinal Suenens

In a long and carefully worded interview published in May 1969 in the French periodical Informations Catholiques Internationales, he argued — as he did in a book written several months earlier — for practical changes that would better foster co-responsibility at all levels of the Church.

Suenens’ interview, which stretched over fifteen pages, was extremely important at the time of its publication, which was just a little more than three years after the Council.

Revisiting it today, some 53 years later, it is striking to see how the main topics he dealt with in that conversation are among the issues that Francis has made priorities in his pontificate.

They include rebalancing the relationship between the centre and the peripheries, papal primacy and collegiality, the bishop and his people, life and law, and the pope and the Roman Curia. And they also entail the status and mission of papal nuncios and, of course, the role of the College of Cardinals.

The current pope has given much attention to addressing these issues, save the last one.

His practice of giving the red hat to men in countries, dioceses and offices that have never before been headed by a cardinal does not address the issues that most concerned reformers like Cardinals Pellegrino and Suenens.

Paul VI takes another look

The problem is not just geographics. As the late Primate of Belgium pointed out in his 1969 interview, the College of Cardinals does not offer a “faithful image of (the Church’s) diversity”.

And the way its members are selected (arbitrarily and by the pope alone) does nothing to change that substantially. In fact, Suenens argued that it smacked of absolute monarchy and risked conveying who is in favour with the pope and who is not.

He also believed that lay people had to have some sort of role in helping select those in higher office, including the Roman Pontiff.

But Pope Paul, who was a close friend of Suenens’, moved carefully on the issue. During a consistory to name new cardinals in early March 1973, he announced that he was looking into a different proposal to allow Eastern Church Patriarchs and the fifteen members of the Synod of Bishops’ permanent council to participate in the conclave.

A few weeks later, he repeated this to officials in the Synod’s secretariat. But, in the end, he did nothing.

That did not end the debate, however.

“A special enclave within the College of Bishops”

John R. Quinn, the late archbishop of San Francisco, offered a number of “possibilities” for changing the way the Roman Pontiff is elected in his 1999 book The Reform of the Papacy: the Costly Call to Christian Unity.

He acknowledged that the College of Cardinals was a “distinguished body” and that it “has performed great service to the popes and to the whole Church” during its thousand-year history.

But he said there were “three problems” that necessitated its reform — it is “a special enclave within the College of Bishops”; it’s awkward relationship to the Eastern Churches; and its exclusive role in the election of the pope.

Quinn noted that the manner in which the Bishop of Rome is elected has changed over the course of the centuries. And while history shows that some of the earlier “procedures… were open to great abuse, it has also shown that the exclusive role of the cardinals in this process has also been open to abuse”.

And while “confining the election to 120 cardinals at the most creates a manageable electoral body”, he argued that this college “does not relate directly or structurally to the episcopal conferences”.

Quinn insisted that “at least some of the presidents of conferences” merited a vote in the conclave. He also suggested representatives from religious orders and the laity “could be invited to express their view on the more important qualities they would like to see in the next pope”.

The late archbishop admitted that it would be tricky to decide exactly who might be invited to do this, but said, “Whatever the problems involved, careful consideration should be given to how lay persons could be included.”

Synodality and how bishops (and popes) are selected

All this sounds very much in sync with the synodal process that Pope Francis has been trying to make a constituent part of the Roman Catholic Church’s communal life and decision-making process.

He has brought synodality — which includes the participation, in various ways, of all the People of God, ordained, lay and vowed religious — to bear on almost all areas of the Church, including the Roman Curia.

But he has done little to extend this to the selection and appointment of bishops and nothing to make it part of the election of the Roman Pontiff.

Francis has made scant use of the College of Cardinals as a consultative body.

But he is summoning all its members (both cardinal-electors and the men over 80 who have lost their vote in the conclave) to two days of meetings at end of August, only the third time he’s held such a red-hatted summit in over nine years.

The stated reason is to “reflect on the new apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium”, the document he published on March 19 to put in place his reform of the Curia. Three months later, and despite the fact that the constitution went into effect on June 5, the text exists only in Italian.

What will happen in August?

A large number of cardinals, maybe more than half of them, do not have sufficient facility in Italian to read — let alone reflect on — this document. In any case, what will they be reflecting on? The reform is done.

It’s now up to the pope to begin replacing the numerous Curia officials who are beyond retirement age or have worked many years at the Vatican, with new people who are willing to implement the reform energetically, collaboratively and according to the spirit with which it was written.

As for the meeting of cardinals in August, it’s already been suggested here that it could be “the occasion and forum for Francis to make an important announcement about the future of his pontificate and when the cardinal-electors will have to exercise the one function reserved to them alone — elect the Bishop of Rome”.

Of course, that is just a conjecture, but…

If Francis is planning to announce a date for his resignation, he may want to do it before all the world’s cardinals.

It is not likely that he would step down immediately and probably not even in a few weeks’ time, as Benedict did. What if, instead, he were to initiate a lengthier period of discernmentlasting several months or more?

Such discernment, if it is to include the participation of all the People of God, would require some concrete changes to at least the procedures the College of Cardinals follows.

It would be quite unusual if Francis were to do nothing

The 85-year-old pope has recently been keeping his cards to his chest more than usual, so we have no indication if he is actually even considering any significant changes to the conclave.

One might think it is a far too ambitious project for an elderly man who is currently giving so much of his energy to other major initiatives, most of them still in their infant stages.

But every pope in the last hundred years or so (at least those who have lived more than 33 days) has at least tweaked the apostolic constitution regulating the sede vacante and election of the Roman Pontiff.

It would be quite unusual if Francis, who has been revising or updating almost everything in the Church, were to do absolutely nothing.

Beware the ghosts of Pellegrino, Suenens and Quinn…

  • Robert Mickens is LCI Editor in Chief.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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