Pope John Paul II is dead, at age 84. Elected in 1978, for many of our younger readers he is probably the only pope they consciously remember. Although we at WWNK usually don't concern ourselves with religious affairs, we were curious as to what happens when a pope dies, and how exactly does a papal election work?

It all starts with a method of determination of death that would raise every scientist's hackles: If the Cardinal Camerlengo, a high-ranking cardinal appointed by the pope, calls him three times by his name with no response (until 1903, this was done by striking the pope's forehead with a silver hammer), death is pronounced and the ceremonial chain reaction set in motion. The pope's private apartments are sealed, the 'ring of the fisherman' is removed from his finger and, together with the papal seal, destroyed. The official announcement of his death is followed by nine days of mourning, during which Catholic churches throughout the world are draped in black.

Until a new pope is elected--no sooner than 15 and no later than 20 days after the old pope's passing--the Cardinal Camerlengo and a few other cardinals are in charge of church affairs. During that time, members of the Cardinal College, the candidates for the papal throne, begin pouring into Rome from all over the world. By Vatican law, every cardinal is obliged to appear; only emergencies like grave illness are accepted as excuse. In this case, the summoning of the cardinals to Rome took place on Friday, obviously in anticipation of the pope's death.

As soon as all the cardinals have arrived, they enter conclave (from Latin *** clavis, "with key"), which means they're being locked up in the Sistine Chapel for as long as it takes to elect the pope's successor; at night, they are escorted to St. Martha's House, a 170-room hospice inside the Vatican. Even though there is no prescribed limit to its duration, no conclave since the 54- day event of 1831 has lasted more than five days. The safety measures to ensure absolute secrecy resemble that of a high-security prison--including sweeping for bugs, removal of telephones, internet connections, radios, TVs and newspapers-- and the penalty for disclosing anything about the election is immediate excommunication. Of course, the cardinals are free to discuss the process among themselves and try to make a case for their favorite nominee. In between voting rounds, many will typically attempt to convince 'swing voters' to switch sides.

The maximum number of voting cardinals as decreed by John Paul II is 120; cardinals over the age of eighty are excluded from voting. Currently, there are 117 cardinals under the age of 80 that will attend the conclave. The votes are cast by silent ballot, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. Each cardinal writes the name of his candidate on a ballot paper and ceremonially drops it into a chalice on the chapel's altar. Afterwards, the Cardinal Camerlengo and three scrutineers count the votes, reading each of them aloud and taking notes. If the ballot has been unsuccessful, the papers are set aside and another vote is cast immediately. After the second round, all ballot papers are burned in a small stove whose pipe leads directly to the roof. If no consent has been reached, wet straw is added, which makes for the famous black smoke; otherwise the straw is left out, which generates white smoke--the sign to the faithful that a new pope has been elected.

Like many of his predecessors, John Paul II made some crucial changes to the Universi Dominici Gregis (UDG), the Apostolic Constitution, particularly the electoral process. Previously, a cardinal needed two-thirds of all votes to be elected pope. While that still holds true, the altered UDG says that after 30 rounds of deadlocked balloting, the new pope may be elected by simple majority-- providing an incentive for cardinals whose candidates may not find the approval of the vast majority to just sit it out for about 12 days and eventually push their nominee through. This opens the doors for radically conservative cardinals who wouldn't be able to get a 2/3 majority behind them, church pundits say, making it likely that the next pope is going to be as fundamentalist as John Paul II who was a very controversial figure throughout his time in office.

Critics have accused him of reversing 25 years of modernization attempts, instigated by Pope John XXIII. John Paul barred even the discussion of the ordination of women, reasserted and amplified the doctrine of 'Papal Infallibility', forbade priests to use ethical texts other than the gospels in their sermons, eliminated inconvenient dissenters from influential posts around the world, and put his own cronies in their place. A 2003 AlterNet article titled "The Totalitarian Pope" condemned a 1989 Vatican decree that "all church office holders, be they parish priests or philosophy and theology teachers in seminaries must not only give formal assent to major church dogmas but also assent to doctrine not formerly proclaimed as obligatory, such as the Church's teachings on sex."

If you're a gambler by nature, you can
bet on the next pope here. However, since all but three of the 117 eligible cardinals have been handpicked by John Paul II, there should be few surprises in store. In a 1997 article, Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, stated that "we may even get a pope that makes his immediate predecessor look like a liberal."

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Posted 04-04-2005 3:53 PM by Doug Casey