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Papal Succession in the Catholic Church

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
March 7, 2013
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The February 2013 resignation of Pope Benedict XVI set in motion a succession process for the Roman Catholic Church that dates to the Middle Ages. Cardinals gathering in a conclave will cast votes for the next leader of the one-billion-member church amid unusual circumstances. The eight-five-year-old Benedict was the first pope to resign in six centuries, and the transition occurs at a time when the church faces a number of highly publicized scandals, including a widening crisis over child sex abuse and a probe into the dealings of the Vatican Bank. The election of a pope also stirs new debate over modernization of the church, prospects for a non-European pontiff, and the degree to which divisive issues, such as the ordination of women and birth control, will be taken up by a new pope. Meanwhile, the next papal administration will face challenges over religious freedom for Catholics in Asia and Muslim states.

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How is the pope elected?

The College of Cardinals, comprising leaders of dioceses around the world as well as senior administrators in the Vatican, is charged with meeting in a conclave to elect a new pope. Cardinals gather in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and swear an oath of secrecy before the voting begins. In 2013, the number of voting cardinals--only those under 80 years of age are eligible--was expected to be 115. A two-thirds majority is required to elect a winner. The balloting process involves four votes per day until a new pope is elected, with three cardinals chosen to scrutinize the vote and announce each ballot. If there is a deadlock after thirteen days, a runoff vote between the top two vote getters is held. When a candidate is selected, he is asked if he accepts and what name he will take. Ballots and other paper notes used in the voting are then burned with a chemical that produces a white smoke, signaling a new pontiff. A cardinal deacon then appears before St. Peter's Square in Rome to declare "habemus papam."

How is this year's conclave different?

Pope Benedict surprised even senior church officials with his announced resignation, citing an inability to keep up with the rigors of the position. His departure means the College of Cardinals will be electing a successor with a previous pope still alive, which hasn't happened since Pope Gregory XII abdicated in 1415 as part of an arrangement to end the Great Schism in the church. Benedict will adopt the title emeritus pope, and in his parting words pledged "unconditional reverence and obedience" to the next pope.

The 2013 papal conclave also occurs at a time in which the church hierarchy faces multiple crises, including ongoing reports of priests who committed sexual abuse against minors and were shielded by church officials. Hundreds of cases have been brought by alleged victims in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, resulting in settlements of roughly $2 billion and continuing probes of high-ranking prelates accused of covering up evidence. The church is also confronting the so-called "Vatileaks" affair, in which the former butler to Pope Benedict shared with a newspaper some confidential documents stolen from the pope's chambers. A church investigation of the incident reportedly shed light on corruption and infighting in the Vatican bureaucracy. In addition, the Vatican Bank is under investigation by Italian authorities for alleged money laundering.

There have been papal conclaves in times of crisis before, such as in 1914 and 1939 on the brink of world wars, but rarely has a papal succession occurred with such internal scandal, says Rev. Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University.

What are the main election criteria for the cardinals?

Voting cardinals select the next pope from amongst themselves. Technically, any baptized Catholic male is eligible, but popes have been chosen exclusively from cardinals since the fourteenth century. The last non-cardinal elected pope was Urban VI in 1378, but after five months his election was challenged by a group of cardinals, setting in motion events that led to the Great Schism.

Experts on the church say they do not expect a choice that will steer a major shift in Catholic teaching, in part because all of the voting cardinals were selected by Popes John Paul II and Benedict. Both were committed to restoring orthodoxy in church tradition, as seen in their disciplining of a number of priests and scholars, including Latin American clerics who believed in "liberation theology," and in Benedict's case, the liberalizing of the use of the sixteenth-century Tridentine Mass in Latin.

"We're not going to see a lot of ideological diversity," said Richard Gaillardetz, who teaches Catholic theology at Boston College. "This is not about being conservative or liberal from a doctrinal view. What you are going to see are questions about style and leadership. Those are important."

Adds Seton Hall's Wister: "They are considering the condition of the church, the challenges, and who best to lead the church. One of the major challenges would be increasing secularism and the lack of religious faith throughout the world. Also, the internal challenge of the reputation of the church damaged by sex abuse scandals or questionable financial dealings."

In the aftermath of Pope John-Paul's death in 2005, when some of these same issues were challenging the church, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, emerged as a favorite going into the conclave. Already well known as doctrinal enforcer of John Paul, his role in the period after John Paul's death, including his homily at the funeral Mass, sealed his election after just a few votes, some Vatican experts say.

Who are leading candidates to become pope?

There has been growing media discussion that this year's papal election will be considering geographic representation more than previous conclaves because the church's main areas of growth are Latin America and Africa [see Pew chart below]. A slight majority of cardinals are from Europe, from where nearly all popes have come. Vatican experts have repeatedly cautioned against handicapping papal elections like political races, but media reports have said lead candidates include Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada. [National Catholic Reporter's John Allen provides in-depth profiles of the papabile.]

What are the principal duties of the pope?

As paramount spiritual leader for Catholics, the pope issues regular instructions of the faith through weekly public audiences as well as periodic encyclicals, lengthy letters articulating church teachings on a wide range of issues, both contemporary and timeless. Pope Benedict wrote three encyclicals on the theological virtues of love, hope, and charity. Papal "infallibility" over doctrine concerning faith or morals was officially defined in 1870 by the First Vatican Council.

The pope also has authority over the functions of the church, including oversight of the Roman Curia, the collection of departments overseeing such areas as Catholic education, spiritual orders, interreligious affairs, and the Secretariat of State (foreign policy). The pope is responsible for the approval of bishops, amounting to hundreds appointed worldwide every year.

Recent popes have also mounted frequent pilgrimages abroad. John Paul has been the most well-traveled, visiting 129 countries, and was the first in millennia to visit a synagogue and the first ever to enter an Islamic mosque.Pew Research Center, "The Global Catholic Population," © 2013

Pew Research Center, "The Global Catholic Population," © 2013

What are the chief issues facing the next pope?

The next pope is expected to continue efforts accelerated by Pope Benedict to address the child sex abuse scandal. Many of the abuse cases date to decades ago, but new accusations and charges of cover-up continue to plague the church. A number of church observers have said reform efforts should focus on establishing a mechanism for holding bishops accountable for their role in the scandals.

"The next pope must, in my judgment, be more severe than his two predecessors in dealing with bishops whom the evidence demonstrates were complicit in abuse cover-up--even if such an approach was considered appropriate at the time by both the counseling profession and the legal authorities," writes George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, in a column for First Things.

Benedict's successor will also be challenged by how to react to the church's global growth and ways in which the increasingly diverse church is managed. Gaillardetz of Boston College says the demands of running the church are beyond the capacities of the pope and his Curia.

"We don't have institutions suited for the challenge of leading a global church," says Gaillardetz. "Catholicism in the Philippines doesn't look like Catholicism in Nigeria or Catholicism in Brazil or in Boston. How you hold that diversity together is an incredibly difficult challenge."

The next pope will be arriving midway through the "year of the faith" designed to reinforce church doctrine. But opinion surveys in recent years have shown divisions among Catholics over questions related to adjusting traditional beliefs as well as the proportion of church focus on social justice and right-to-life issues. Fifty years after the convening of the Second Vatican Council, which introduced a number of modernizations of church practices, Catholics continue to debate whether the Council's pronouncements [see Additional Resources] amounted to a weakening of church traditions or a path to greater relevance in contemporary life.

What are the modern foreign policy duties of the pope?

The Vatican, the world's smallest sovereign state at 108 acres, maintains the world's oldest--and one of its largest--diplomatic services.

In the past fifty years, experts say, popes have taken a more outspoken stance on global issues. For instance, Pope Jon XXIII in 1963 published an encyclical calling for nuclear disarmament, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). John Paul was famously identified with the Eastern bloc struggle against communism, speaking frequently of human dignity and freedom and serving as a chief inspiration for Poland's ultimately successful Solidarity movement. Other popes have spoken out regularly on environmental stewardship, alleviating poverty, capitalism and inequality, and defending human rights. Pope Benedict gave particular attention to defending religious freedom, telling the UN General Assembly in 2008 (PDF): "The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order."

Considering Benedict's approach to foreign affairs, Edward Pentin, a correspondent for the National Catholic Register, writes for Foreign Affairs that he "primarily sought to bring the teachings of the Catholic Church to the world stage, rather than dwell on practicalities" of diplomacy.

The next pope will continue to face challenges to protecting church interests, including friction between the church and authorities in places like China and Vietnam, competition by Christian Pentecostalism in Latin America, and ongoing concerns about freedom to worship in Muslim states, especially amid the turmoil created by the Arab Spring uprisings in the Mideast and North Africa.

CFR's Isobel Coleman, reflecting on calls for a pope from the developing world, notes the church's vast network of humanitarian organizations and the outsized role a papal shift on issues like condom use could have on the treatment of diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Additional reading

How do U.S. Catholics view the church and what they wish to see in a new pope? This Pew Center on Religion study examines the issues.

The National Catholic Reporter published a series in January 2013 looking at the issue of ordaining women as clergy in historical context.

George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes for the publication First Things about distinguishing "authentic Catholic reform from ersatz Catholic reform."

Examine the trove of documents on church positions produced by the Second Vatican Council.

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