Skip to main content

Popes, Election of


Any consideration of the election of the pope is founded upon the teaching of the Church concerning succession to the papacy, the history of papal elections, and the present legislation governing such elections.

Catholics accept on divine and Catholic faith that the Holy Father is the successor of Peter. He attains the primacy of Peter by succeeding to the See that Peter established. But the method of selection, who selects, and how the Holy See is vacated are matters of ecclesiastical law and not divine decree. The pope has the freedom and the right not only to make, but also to abrogate, derogate, or alter a law concerning papal elections. Therefore the code of rules that is in effect is at the disposal of the pope. He could alter it, and he could even appoint a successor since there is nothing here that is determined by faith.

The ways in which the papacy may be vacated also admit of diversity. Physical death is the usual manner of vacating the see of Peter, but irremedial loss of reason (mental death) and resignation are legitimate means. The pope, however, since he has supreme power, can never be deposed.

History. Until the 4th century the method of election of the bishop of Rome did not differ considerably from that used in other bishoprics. The neighboring bishops, the Roman clergy, and the laity of Rome each participated in the election. Since the role of these various classes of electors was somewhat unclear and the office was one of extreme importance, the procedure was open to abuse. Consequently, with the advent of the Christian Roman emperors (4th century) the imperial influence was brought to bear on papal elections.

From the 4th to the 11th century the influence of temporal rulers in papal elections reached its zenith. Not only the Roman emperors but also, in their turn, the Ostrogoth kings of Italy and the Carolingian emperors attempted to control the selection of the Roman pontiff. This civil intervention ranged from the approval of elected candidates to the actual nomination of candidates (with tremendous pressure exerted on the electors to secure their acceptance), and even to the extreme of forcible deposition and imposition. It was at this time that, in an attempt to avoid the inevitable disputes that accompanied papal elections, two popesFelix IV (526530) and Boniface II (530532)proceeded to the rather striking innovation of naming their own successors. Their right to do so, however, was not generally accepted by the electors and, as a result, the attempts were for the most part ineffectual.

The history of papal elections from the 11th to the 16th century is characterized by the gradual development of the conclave as we know it today. The first important step in the attempt to reform papal elections was taken by Pope Nicholas II on April 13, 1059, at the Council of Rome. The decree, which he published, declared that the papal electors were henceforth to be only the higher clergy of Rome (i.e., the cardinals) with the rest of the clergy and the laity permitted merely to give approbation to the election. The emperor was likewise to be informed of the results of the election and allowed to confirm the choice that had already been made, although it was made clear that this was only a concession granted to him by the Holy See. Provisions were made also for holding the election outside the city of Rome if conditions warranted. (see papal election decree [1059].)

At the Lateran Council of 1179 Pope Alexander III, in the apostolic constitution Licet de vitanda discordia, further stipulated that all cardinals were to be considered equal, and that a two-thirds majority of the votes was necessary for a valid election. With the passage of time it became apparent that the college of cardinals was on occasion prone to delay its selection of a pope and, as a result, to inflict upon the Church the harmful effects of a long interregnum. To remedy this situation, Gregory X, by means of his bull Ubi periculum (1274), instituted the conclave system of strict seclusion in order to secure a more rapid papal succession. Further modifications were added in 1562 by Pope Pius IV who issued regulations regarding the method of voting in the conclave through his bull In eligendis.

The method of election established by the end of the 16th century has remained for the most part intact, with various modifications and codifications of existing regulations effected by several pontiffs as the need arose. In 1882 Pope Leo XIII published his constitution Praedecessores nostri, which contained a number of modifications of electional procedure. Pius X, through his bull Commissum nobis (Jan. 20, 1904), effectively removed any remnants of secular influence, and on Dec. 25, 1904, he issued the constitution Vacante Sede Apostolica that was for the most part simply a codification of prior legislation. The current rules governing elections are those established by Paul VI (apostolic constitution Romano pontifici eligendo [1975]) and revised by John Paul II (apostolic constitution Universi dominici gregis [1996]).

Procedure. Preparation for the Conclave. It is the duty of the dean of the sacred college of cardinals to notify all the cardinals of the vacancy of the Holy See and to call them to the election of the new pontiff. These in turn are bound in virtue of holy obedience to respond to this summons and to proceed immediately to the place designated for the election, unless they are detained by a legitimate obstacle that is recognized as such by the sacred college of cardinals. After 18 days at most have elapsed since the vacancy of the Holy See, as many cardinals as are present enter the conclave and proceed to the business of the election. If a cardinal should arrive after the conclave has begun, but before a pope has been elected, he is admitted. In such a case, however, the newcomer must take up his duties at whatever stage of progress the conclave has reached at the time of his arrival.

The cardinals will be lodged in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a new accommodation that will certainly do away with the strictures to shorten the length of the conclave as conceived by Pope Bl. Gregory X in his constitution Ubi periculun (1274). The cardinals will have to be transported to the traditional voting place: the Sistine Chapel. The chapel itself is to be carefully checked, by "trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability, in order to ensure that no audiovisual equipment has been secretly installed for recording and transmission to the outside" (Universi dominici gregis 51).

At the appointed time, after the dean of the sacred college has celebrated a Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit, the cardinals hear an oration warning them of the sacredness of their duties, and on the same day they begin the conclave. After a brief entrance ceremony all outsiders are excluded, the cardinals repeat their oath, and all others who have not yet taken the oath, now swear to abide by all the rules and prescriptions of the conclave. At this point the conclave is closed within and without, and its closure is duly certified.

The Conclave. On the morning following the sealing of the conclave, all the cardinals present gather in the appointed chapel for the celebration of Mass, the reception of Communion, and the recitation of the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus. After this, they proceed immediately to the matter of the election.

The mode of the election is by secret, paper ballot. For a valid election the candidate must receive two-thirds of the votes of the cardinals; if the number of the cardinals present cannot be divided into three equal parts, another vote is required for the validity of his election.

Election by ballot is divided into three stages: preparatory steps, the actual casting of ballots, and subsequent tallying and recording of the votes. In the preparatory stage two or three ballots of a set form are distributed to each cardinal. Then, three tellers for the election are chosen from among the cardinals by lot, as well as three to bring the ballots of the sick, and three to review the results of the election. After all the officials are chosen, the cardinals write the name of the candidate they favor on the ballot. They alter the style of their penmanship to help prevent recognition, and they write only one name on the ballot. When finished, they fold the ballot once lengthwise.

In the actual casting of the ballots, each cardinal in turn approaches the altar according to the order of precedence. He carries the folded ballot between the first two fingers of his right hand. He kneels for a short prayer, and on rising he testifies in a clear voice that as Christ the Lord will be his Judge, he is choosing whom he judges according to God should be chosen. Then he places his ballot on the provided paten, and with the paten he places it into a chalice. He bows to the altar and returns to his place. After all the ballots have been cast, the first teller covers the chalice with the paten and shakes it a few times to mix the ballots. If the number of ballots corresponds to the number of cardinals, the election process continues; if not, all the ballots are burned and the vote must be taken up again. When all have been counted, the three tellers read each ballot successively, and the third one reads aloud the name appearing on each ballot. All the cardinals can keep a record of the voting. The last teller strings all the ballots together and puts the ensemble into an empty chalice or on a table to one side.

The tallying and recording of the votes is performed officially by the tellers, even if the outcome of the balloting is already obvious. They count all the votes any candidate has received. Not until one receives at least the necessary two-thirds of the votes, is a pope canonically and validly elected. The three official cardinal reviewers chosen at the beginning then verify the whole procedure by a careful examination. Then the tellers burn the ballots, whether a pope has been elected or not. If, when no one was elected, there is to be a second balloting immediately following, the ballots of both are burned together. There are to be two such sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon every day until a pope is elected.

When a pope has been canonically elected, the dean of the cardinals, in the name of the whole college, asks him if he accepts his election as pope. When he answers in the affirmative within the time set by the majority vote of the cardinals, he is duly elected and true pope having full and absolute jurisdiction over the whole Church. Once the pope-elect accepts his election, the conclave is at its end as far as any canonical effects are concerned.

Previously, at a time designated by the pope, the eldest cardinal deacon would crown the new pope with the triple tiara of the papacy. This has been replaced with the "solemn ceremony of the inauguration of the Pontificate" (Universi dominici gregis 92), the praxis introduced by John Paul I in 1978.

Current Legislation. The apostolic constitution Romano pontifici eligendo of Pope Paul VI (Oct. 1, 1975; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 67 [1975] 609645) introduced numerous changes in the legislation regarding papal elections, while retaining many traditional elements.

Electors, Cardinals Only. In addresses given on March 5, 1973, and March 24, 1973, Paul VI announced his intention of consulting interested persons to see whether Oriental patriarchs who were not cardinals, as well as the members of the Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops should participate in papal elections. The results of the consultation were not conclusive and, hence, only those persons who have been named cardinals of the Church were to be electors (Romano pontifici eligendo 33).

Number and Age of Electors. The number of electors is limited now to 120. While formerly the number of cardinals was fixed at 70, each cardinal could bring two or three assistants to the conclave. Currently, only in exceptional cases may an infirmarian accompany an elector, thus reducing the overall number of participants (ibid. 33,45). Following upon the prescriptions of the motu proprio Ingravescentem aetatem of Nov. 21, 1970, only those cardinals who have not completed their 80th year of age are eligible to vote in papal elections (ibid. 33).

The Conclave. The conclave is not required for validity (ibid. 41), but is to be understood as a carefully determined place, a kind of sacred retreat, where the cardinal electors choose the supreme pontiff and where they remain day and night until the election is complete (ibid. 42). New norms regarding the observance of secrecy provide for an examination of the premises to determine whether listening devices or other such instruments have been introduced into the quarters (ibid. 55, 61). These precautions, as well as the other norms, have two purposes: to ensure a free election and to provide for a rapid carrying out of the business to be transacted.

Episcopal Character. If the newly elected pope is a bishop, he is immediately bishop of Rome and head of the episcopal college. He possesses and can exercise full and supreme power over the universal Church. If, however, the elected person does not possess the episcopal character, he is to be immediately ordained a bishop. This change is in line with Vatican Council II's teaching on the unity that is to exist between the power of orders and the power of jurisdiction (Lumen gentium 22).

Period of Prayer. If no person is elected after three days of voting, a day is to be allowed to pass without voting (Romano pontifici eligendo 76). The electors are to pray and may converse freely among themselves. Two other such days are foreseen if the ballots are not conclusive. After this point, forms of compromise may be adopted.

Pastoral Dimensions. The cardinals are strongly exhorted not to be guided by likes or dislikes in electing the pope, but to vote for the person whom they judge most fit to rule the universal Church (ibid. 85). Likewise, the entire Church is to be united in a special way with those who are electing a supreme pontiff: the election is to be considered the action of the entire Church, and, thus, prayers are to be offered in every city and in other places as well for the successful outcome of the election (ibid. 85).

Other Simplifications. Matters of lesser importance include changes in the various excommunications to be levied against those who do not observe secrecy (ibid. 46,58) and prescriptions regarding photographs to be taken of the deceased pontiff (ibid. 30). An ecumenical council or a synod of bishops that may have been in progress at the death of a pope is automatically suspended pending authorization by the newly elected pontiff to proceed (ibid. 34).

Universi dominici gregis maintains all the essential elements of Romano Pontifici eligendo: the powers of the College of Cardinals during the vacancy of the Apostolic See are limited and well defined; the cardinals of age remain the sole electors of the pontiff; the election is to take place in the secrecy, under pain of excommunication, of the conclave; and two-thirds of the votes are required for election unless there is a prolonged deadlock. The introduction identifies the reason for the new document as "the awareness of the Church's changed situation and the need to take into consideration the general revision of Canon Law." But at the same time it has been careful "in formulating the new discipline, not to depart in substance from the wise and venerable tradition already established."

The most significant changes introduced by the constitution concern the rules for electing the pope. The previous legislation had established that if there was a deadlock after 33 ballots and periods of prayer, exhortation, and consultation, the cardinals could unanimously agree to change the required two-thirds of the votes for a valid election to election by an absolute majority or else a vote in which there are only two candidates, namely, the two who received the most votes in the immediately preceding balloting. Universi dominici gregis changed the required unanimity to an absolute majority; it also specified that if the cardinals agreed to hold a vote between the two previous leading vote-getters, only an absolute majority is required for election (no. 75). This last point had not been clearly specified before. The constitution also abolished two of the three methods of election: by acclamation and by compromise (in case of deadlock, allowed the cardinals to delegate their votes to a small committee of their own). Secret, paper ballot is now the only valid way to elect the Roman pontiff (no. 62). In a further, slight modification, the constitution requires twothirds of the votes for a canonical election. Both Paul VI and Pius XII had required that one vote would be added to the traditional two-thirds established by Alexander III in his constitution Licet de vitanda in 1179. The reason behind the extra vote was to guarantee that the elected had obtained the traditional percentage even if he had voted for himself. The only instance in which the plus one vote will be required is if the total number of cardinals voting is not divisible by three (no. 62).

Universi dominici gregis maintains the limitation of the total number of electors to 120 and the prohibition of the cardinals who are 80 years of age from participating in the conclave, though it moves the date at which the age limit is enforced from the beginning of the conclave to the death of the previous pontiff (no. 33). The over-80 cardinals are asked, "by virtue of the singular bond with the Apostolic See which the Cardinalate represents," to lead the prayers of the faithful in Rome and elsewhere asking for divine assistance for the cardinal electors (no.85). The only reason a cardinal elector can be excluded from voting is if he refuses to enter the conclave or abandons it with no valid cause and without the permission of the majority of the participating cardinals (no. 40).

Bibliography: c. journet, The Apostolic Hierarchy, 427433, 479482, v. 1 of The Church of the Word Incarnate, tr. a. h. c. downes (London, New York 1955); The Primacy of Peter from the Protestant and from the Catholic Point of View, tr. j. chapin (Westminster, Md. 1954). g. c. van noort, Christ's Church, 274, v. 2 of Dogmatic Theology, tr. j. j. castelot and w.r. murphy, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1957). k. bihlmeyer and h. tÜchle, Kirchengeschichte, 3 v. (17th ed. Paderborn 1962), Church History, v. 1 Christian Antiquity, tr. v. mills (Westminster, Md. 1958). p. hughes, A History of the Church (New York, v. 12, rev. 1949; v. 3, rev. 1947) v. 2.

[a. swift/

f. g. morrisey/

s. miranda]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Popes, Election of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 21 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Popes, Election of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (September 21, 2018).

"Popes, Election of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.