This week, the papal conclave begins in Rome. Many expect it will end this week as well, with the election of Pope Benedict’s successor. But reader John McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern and a leading expert on supermajority rules, alerts me to a recent change that may cause the meeting to last longer than expected.
The rules for the conclave are contained in a 1996 decree by Pope John Paul II. As originally written, the decree retained the traditional requirement that a new pope be elected by a vote of two thirds of the conclave–but with a slight alteration. The two-thirds requirement would hold only for the first 33 ballots, or roughly eight days. After that, the vote would be by simple majority. The purpose, obviously, was to break deadlocks and prevent conclaves from dragging on too long.
In 2007, however, Pope Benedict amended the 1996 decree to reinstate the original rule: a two-thirds requirement on all ballots. As a result, the conclave that begins this week will continue until a candidate receives a supermajority. This could result in a longer conclave, but will ensure that a consensus candidate acceptable to all “sides”–traditionalist and non-traditionalist, European and non-European, curial and non-curial–prevails. And, anyway, recent conclaves have avoided deadlocks, notwithstanding the two-thirds requirement.
In Catholic understanding, of course, the Holy Spirit ultimately guides the conclave and achieves the result the church needs. So one might think this tinkering with voting requirements is rather unnecessary. The Coptic Orthodox Church names its pope by lot. But the supermajority requirement has its value, even if it might occasionally result in a longer conclave, and the Holy Spirit can work through a supermajority as well as a bare majority. As Pope Pius II declared on his election in 1458, “We would judge ourselves entirely unworthy, did we not know that the voice of two-thirds of the Sacred College is the voice of God, which we may not disobey.”