Everywhere I keep hearing that when the cardinals of the Catholic Church meet next month to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, there will be 117 electors in the conclave. Quite a number of living cardinals are over 80, and thus ineligible to vote in the papal election.

Canon lawyer Edward Peters provides a handy list of 118 cardinals who are not yet 80 years of age. The oldest of them, Cardinal Husar of Ukraine, will turn 80 on February 26, and thus become ineligible before the abdication of the Holy Father becomes effective. Presumably this is how journalists come up with the figure of 117 electors.

But three more cardinals will turn 80 in March: Cardinal Kasper of Germany on March 5, the Italian Cardinal Poletto on March 18, and Cardinal Sandoval Iñiguez of Mexico on March 28. It seems unlikely that the conclave will convene before March 5; is Cardinal Kasper therefore disqualified? Or is the rule that in order to be eligible one must be younger than 80 on the date when the See of Peter becomes vacant , but that one may participate in the election if one turns 80 while it remains vacant?

If that is not right—if one must be younger than 80 at the time of the decisive balloting on the next pope—then Cardinal Kasper seems sure to be out. And then Cardinal Poletto must drop out if the balloting does not conclude by his birthday on March 18, and Cardinal Sandoval Iñiguez if things aren’t wrapped up by his birthday on March 28 (by which time it will be Holy Thursday anyway, and they’d better get a move on).

Perhaps Professor Peters can enlighten us about this. But it seems possible that we will have only 116 electors eligible to vote in the conclave, and maybe as few as 115 still voting by the time a choice is made. Inquiring minds want to know what rule governs here, however.

UPDATE: Commenters below assure me (partly on the authority of Prof. Peters) that it’s the first alternative I describe above—being less than 80 years of age at the time the See becomes vacant.  So 117 is correct.

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