Who Can Be Elected Pope?

Who Can Be Elected Pope?

Italy, Lazio, Rome, View of St. Peter's Basilica
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Technically, any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason, is not a heretic, is not in schism, and is not “notorious” for simony can be elected pope — there is no other requirement for election (although there are several requirements before a person can actually assume the papacy once elected). It might even be technically possible for them to elect a non-Catholic male if they had reason to believe that he would immediately convert to Catholicism.

Formal Requirements

The lack of a long list of formal requirements is probably because, in times past, it was possible for the elector cardinals to elect a new pope not through formal ballots but rather through sudden acclamation after being inspired. A list of formal rules would make such acclamation much more difficult, even though the rules have now eliminated acclamation (as well as the use of committees) to elect new popes.

In practice, of course, Catholic laity and even common clergy have no real chance to be elected pope, and the papacy is restricted to cardinals or perhaps a few bishops. The last non-cardinal elected pope was Urban VI in 1379. Certain Cardinals may be more likely to be elected than others (because of age, for example), but within that group, there is no way to say who is the favorite.

Indeed, it may be more likely that a non-favorite could be elected. Every “favorite” may be favored by a different group, but no group may be able to get the others to accept their candidate. As a consequence, the man finally elected may be no one’s favorite, but ultimately the only man that enough of the Cardinals can agree upon.

Language Requirements

In another informal nod to tradition, the next pope will certainly have to speak Italian. Most people regard the pope as simply the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and that he is, but we must not forget that he is also the Bishop of Rome, and as such he carries with him the same responsibilities of all bishops. Indeed, no one can become pope officially until they are also officially made bishop in Rome.

One of the sources of the great popularity of Pope John XXIII was apparently the fact that he acted as the Bishop of Rome more than most popes. He visited prisons, visited hospitals, and took a genuine interest in the lives and fortunes of the average Roman citizen. This was as unusual as it was appropriate and it helped guarantee his place in the hearts and minds of Romans for generations to come.

If the next pope cannot address the crowds in Rome in their language, he won’t be readily accepted or highly regarded. This may not be the “mob” of antiquity, but it seems unlikely that the elector cardinals will completely ignore their needs when it comes to choosing the next pope. The exclusion of non-Italian speakers may not narrow the field of likely popes very far, but it does narrow it down.

The formal naming of a new pope, just like the election process itself, is heavily defined by long-standing traditions. A person doesn’t simply get a phone call or short applause; instead, they are invested with the title and vestments of his new office in a manner that harkens back to the days when a pope was as much a temporal as spiritual ruler.

Once elected, the new pope is asked by the Dean of the College of Cardinals if he accepts the election (“Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”) and, if so, what new name he would like to be known as. At this point, he officially becomes Pontifex Maximus or the Holy Roman Pontiff. The other cardinals pledge their allegiance to him, and he is dressed in the pontifical vestments, a white soutane, and skull cap. This occurs in “The Room of Tears,” so-called because it is common for a new pope to break down and cry now that the magnitude of what has befallen them becomes clear.

If for some reason a lay person was elected, the Dean of the College of Cardinals would first have to ordain him to the appropriate clerical offices, from priest through the bishop, before he could take over the post of Bishop of Rome that is required of all popes. If he is already a bishop somewhere, it is a tradition that he set aside that post.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then exits the conclave to announce to the world:

  • Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam. Eminentissimus et Reverendissimus Dominus, Dominus ___ Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalis Qui sibi accipit nomen ___.
  • (I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope. The most eminent and reverend Lord, the Lord ___ Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Who takes to himself the name __)

The new pontiff then appears alongside the Dean to deliver an Apostolic Blessing. Traditionally the new pope is then carried on a Sedia Gestatoria (Papal Throne) around St. Peter’s and has a Papal Tiara ceremoniously placed on his head. This monarchical symbolism has lost much of its luster in modern times and Pope John Paul I abolished it. No further “ordination” or “coronation” is required after a person has accepted their election as papacy; theologically, there is no one “above” the pope with authority necessary to do such a thing.

A few days after a successful election, the first Papal Mass is held at St. Peter’s. While walking to the altar, the whole procession stops three times to burn a piece of flax that has been mounted on a reed. As the flames go out, someone says quietly to the new pope “Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi” (“Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world”). This is meant to remind the pope that, despite his powerful position, he remains a mortal who will also die someday.

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Cline, Austin. "Who Can Be Elected Pope?" Learn Religions, Feb. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/electing-the-next-pope-250473. Cline, Austin. (2021, February 16). Who Can Be Elected Pope? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/electing-the-next-pope-250473 Cline, Austin. "Who Can Be Elected Pope?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/electing-the-next-pope-250473 (accessed June 5, 2023).