The decision process for electing the new Pope of the Catholic Church begins on Tuesday March 12th, and it provides an interesting case study in decision making. 115 Cardinals will make the decision on the new pope. There were 207 Cardinals at the date the papacy fell vacant. Cardinals aged 80 years or older before the day the papacy fell vacant are ineligible to vote, leaving 117 electors. The maximum number of electors from the College of Cardinals is 120, although that maximum can and has been exceeded. Two Cardinal electors not attending the conclave are Julius Darmaatmadja, from Indonesia, due to the progressive deterioration of his eyesight, and Keith O’Brien, from Scotland, who chose not to be a distraction after sexual misconduct towards priests in the 1980s, for which he later apologized, came to light.
This election process by 115 representing approximately 1.2 billion Catholics is at the extreme opposite of the American presidential election process we just experienced, where candidates campaigned for a year with the decision made by all voters through the Electoral College. Each process has its advantages and disadvantages. It shouldn’t be a surprise that even though any baptized male is eligible to become pope; that for centuries the College of Cardinals has elected one of their own.
It is also interesting that they disqualify Cardinals 80 or older to vote. This was degreed by Pope Paul VI in 1970 when he provided new rules establishing an age limit for the exercise of major functions by Cardinals. Although there is some logic to this, it does discriminate by age.
The 115 Cardinals will gather in the Sistine Chapel for their conclave, a word drawn from the Latin terms for “with” and “key.” They will vote, four times a day after the first day, until they settle on a leader. However long it takes; the Cardinals will be locked inside the Vatican, with no outside communication. Seclusion is a good decision process element that forces them to dedicate themselves to the decision, while also putting some informal pressure on reaching agreement. Voting four times a day is an iterative decision voting process, which is a good because it forces movement toward a consensus.
The decision requires that 2/3 plus one of the Cardinals vote for the same person to become pope. After 33 or 34 ballots, the election is narrowed to the two leading vote-getters, but even then the winner has to get 2/3. The percentage needed to agree is a critical aspect of decision making, and 2/3 is generally better than a simple majority for most important decisions.
Three Cardinals chosen at random count the ballots; three others chosen at random check their work. The Cardinals can keep their own tallies, because each vote is read out before it’s threaded with a needle and string; at the end, they’re all gathered by the strings and tied together in a knot. Assuming there’s no winner, the session’s second round of voting begins immediately. This is a good way to ensure the integrity of the process, although I think, it may be a little overdone.
Twice a day, after the morning and afternoon sessions, the ballots are burned in a special stove. That’s how the masses outside know how things are going. If there’s no new pope, the knotted-up ballots are burned in a furnace so that they produce a black smoke. The dramatic appearance of white smoke, signaling the election of a new pope, is produced by using a different furnace. This is long-standing tradition with a certain dramatic appeal, instead of a press release or news conference.
This conclave might last a couple of weeks if the Cardinals deadlock, but before the conclave process was instituted, papal elections could go on for months, even years. In 1241, it took 70 days for the badly divided Cardinals to agree on the archbishop of Milan, and during that lengthy decision process one of the leading candidates died during those stifling summer months. Three decades later, Pope Gregory, who had been elected after conclaves lasting nearly three years, set down ground rules to avoid a recurrence.
It will be interesting to observe this decision process as it unfolds. There will be more media coverage of this decision than there probably has been for any other decision.