Q&A on Papal Transition, Conclave & Election of New Pope 
By Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ – originally appearing in America Magazine

What happens when the pope dies or resigns? 

The interregnum and election of a new pope are governed by the rules established in the 1996 constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (“Of the Lord’s Whole Flock”) of John Paul II, as modified by Benedict in 2007. 

When the pope dies, the prefect of the papal household (a German, Archbishop Georg Gänswein) informs the camerlengo (chamberlain) who must verify his death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, the cleric prelates of the Apostolic Camera and the secretary of the Apostolic Camera, who draws up a death certificate. As late as 1903, at the death of Leo XIII, this verification was ritually done by tapping the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer. It may also have been done with John XXIII, but not with Paul VI or John Paul I or II. The camerlengo (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) tells the vicar of Rome (Cardinal Agostino Vallini) of the pope’s death and the vicar then informs the people of Rome. (In 2005, the sostituto, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, short-circuited the process by simply announcing the pope’s death to the people praying in St. Peter’s Square). Meanwhile the prefect of the papal household tells the dean (Cardinal Angelo Sodano) of the college of cardinals, who informs the rest of the college, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See and the heads of nations. Although this is the formal procedure, in fact most people will first hear of the death of the pope from the media. 

The camerlengo locks and seals the private apartment of the pope. In the past looting of papal apartments by his staff, the cardinals or the Roman populace was a common custom. Modern popes have been more concerned that their private papers not fall into the wrong hands. If the pope writes a will, the executor he appoints will take care of his private property and his private papers. This executor is answerable only to the next pope. (In 2005, the John Paul’s private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz ignored the pope’s instructions and did not destroy his personal papers.) The pope’s Fisherman’s ring and his seal are broken to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries. No autopsy is performed—which can lead to wild media speculation if the pope dies suddenly, as occurred with John Paul I. 

How does the church deal with an ex-pope? What are his powers? What is he called? 

There is no room in the Catholic Church for two popes. Once Benedict resigns, he is no longer pope. He reverts to being a cardinal, and since he is over 80, he cannot attend the conclave. 

In my opinion, once he resigns he should put aside the white cassock and put on the robes of a cardinal. He should no longer be called pope, or Benedict, or your Holiness, but should be referred to as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, bishop emeritus of Rome. After the new pope is elected, he should attend his installation along with the other retired cardinals and pledge his allegiance to the new pope. 

[Note: Since Fr. Reese published this article, some decision have been made about the retired pope.  Tuesday, Feb. 26th, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as “emeritus pope” in his retirement and will continue to wear a white cassock, but without the shoulder cape. He will also give up the “fisherman’s ring” which will be destroyed per custom. He then will have a new ring, yet to be designed. ]

I think it was a mistake for him to announce that he will be living inside the Vatican in a renovated monastery. The Vatican belongs to the new pope, and Cardinal Ratzinger needs the pope’s permission to live there. 

In short, like any other cardinal, Cardinal Ratzinger should do whatever the new pope tells him to do. 

Cardinal Ratzinger will probably be very happy to sit by the fire in his library reading theology books. If he wanted a public role, he would have stayed pope. The real issue is whether he will speak or write. Anything he says or writes will be examined by the media to see if it conflicts with anything the new pope says. Although in principle, I support his right to speak and write as a retired cardinal, in practice it could be confusing especially if the media tries to exploit anything he says. It would not be healthy for the church to hear, “The new pope says this, but Pope Benedict says that.” 

After Pope Celestine V resigned as pope in 1216, Dante consigned him to the Inferno because he was disappointed that this saintly man had not stayed and reformed the church. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, did not like the idea of an ex-pope even if the retired pope wanted to live in solitude. Boniface imprisoned Celestine, who he died 10 months later. 

When is the pope’s funeral? 

After the death of the pope, the cardinals arrange for the funeral rites for the pope, to be celebrated for nine consecutive days, in accordance with the Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis. The date for the funeral and burial is set by the college of cardinals, but Universi Dominici Gregis states it is to “take place, except for special reasons, between the fourth and sixth day after death.” The funeral is arranged by the camerlengo in accordance with instructions left him by the pope. 

Who governs the church between the pope’s death/resignation and the election of a new pope? 

All the cardinals and archbishops in charge of departments in the Roman Curia, including the secretary of state (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone), lose their jobs when the pope dies. The ordinary faculties of these offices, which are run by their secretaries during the interregnum, do not cease on the death of the pope, but serious and controversial matters are to await the election of a new pope. The offices are run by their secretaries who remain in position, as do the secretary for relations with states (Archbishop Dominique Mamberti) and the sostituto (Archbishop Giovanni Becciu). If the matter cannot be postponed, the college of cardinals can entrust it to the prefect or president who was in charge of the office when the pope died (or to other cardinals who were members of that congregation or council). Any decision made is provisional until confirmed by the new pope. 

Three major officials do not lose their jobs: the vicar of the diocese of Rome (Cardinal Agostino Vallini), the major penitentiary (Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro) and the camerlengo. The vicar for Rome provides for the pastoral needs of the diocese of Rome and continues to have all the powers he had under the deceased pope. The major penitentiary deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See, and he is allowed to continue functioning because the door to forgiveness should never be closed. 

The camerlengo (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) is the most important official during the interregnum. While the pope is alive, he has the authority to act for the pope in certain areas when the pope is away from Rome. On the death of the pope, the camerlengo takes charge of and administers the property and money of the Holy See, with the help of three cardinal assistants chosen by lot from among those cardinals under 80. During the interregnum he reports to the college of cardinals, which governs the church until a pope is elected. He also organizes the conclave. By appointing the cardinal secretary of state as the camerlengo, Benedict simplified the organizational structure and made sure that his secretary of state had an important role during the interregnum. 

Although the government of the church is in the hands of the college of cardinals until a new pope is elected, the powers of the college are limited. It cannot change the rules governing papal elections, appoint cardinals or make any decisions binding on the next pope. The cardinals meet daily in a general congregation, presided over by the dean of the college (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), until the conclave begins. All the cardinals attend the general congregation, although attendance by those over 80 is optional. A commission headed by the camerlengo with three cardinals (chosen by lot and replaced every three days from among the cardinals under 80) can deal with lesser issues. In 2005, John Paul died on April 2 and the first meeting of the cardinals was on April 4. 

The dean of the college of cardinals is elected by and from the six cardinal bishops. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was dean prior to the last conclave, and his speech as dean to the cardinals prior to the conclave received great attention from the cardinals and the media. 

Is there campaigning prior to the conclave? 

Any discussion, let alone campaigning, prior to the death of a pope is strictly forbidden. The prohibition against discussing papal succession while the pope is still alive dates back to Felix IV (526-30), who instructed the clergy and the Roman Senate to elect his archdeacon, Boniface, as his successor. The senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope’s successor during his lifetime. 

Even earlier, a Roman Synod in 499 forbade the clergy from promising or seeking votes. 

St. Symmachus gathered at St. Peter’s basilica a council of seventy-two bishops, with the purpose of searching for a way to avoid in the future the return to similar scandals. With the unanimous consent of the assembly, he promulgated an important decree on the papal elections that can be summarized in the following three articles: 

  1. Prohibits for all the clergy, deacons or priests, under pain of deposition and excommunication, to promise his vote or to seek votes for the election of the future pontiff during the life and behind the back of the reigning pontiff. Prohibits, under the same pains, to attend meetings held for that same purpose. 
  2. For the purpose of impeding hidden frauds and clandestine conspiracies, it is established that those who reveal to the Church these low maneuvers inspired by a detestable ambition, not only will be protected from all prosecution but will be greatly rewarded. 
  3. Finally, if the pope dies suddenly, without having had any time to deal with the subject of his successor, will be elected the one who has received the votes of all the clergy, or, in case of a tie, of the majority of the voters. (Decret. Gratiani, part. I, dist. LXXIX, c. 10, Si transitus, t. I, p. 243). 

When these decrees were presented to the assembly, the acclamations resounded, and all the fathers, standing up, wrote: “That it be done like this in the future! That the pontifical elections be done from now on in this manner and not in any other!” These prescriptions were signed by all the bishops present, numbering seventy-three, plus the sixty-six priests that attended the meeting. 

[See Ut si quis papa superstite, constitution, Roman synod of March 1, 499, St. Symmachus (498-514). Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, edited by Giovanni Domenico Mansi, vol. VIII, pp. 229-238.] 

Discussions prior to the conclave do occur privately among cardinals, but public campaigning, even after the pope’s death, is frowned upon and would probably be counterproductive. Normally the discussion of candidates is done privately by cardinals over dinner or in small groups. Cardinals who travel a great deal are sometimes suspected of doing this in order to meet and become known to other cardinals prior to the conclave. The cardinals have also gotten to know each other at synods of bishops, extraordinary consistories and other meetings where they see each other in action. But the best know cardinals tend to be those working in Rome where they meet prelates when they visit Rome. Curial cardinals are also better known by the Vatican press corps, which covers the conclave.