With Pope Benedict XVI’s Retirement, Conclave Rules Prove Unclear

The Vatican knows how to stage a conclave—that secretive selection process for the next pope—if the pontiff dies. But with retirement, the rules aren’t so clear.

02.12.13 4:50 PM ET

When the conclave of cardinals convenes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel sometime next month to choose a new pope—it could be as soon as March 1, or as late as March 20—the secret process won’t seem quite as secret as it once did. Since the last one in 2005, after the death of John Paul II, pop culture has treated the world to some wild fictional depictions of what goes on, from the debauchery of The Borgias to the parachuting camerlengo in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

The scene certainly won’t be as dramatic as that. But at the moment, even the Vatican’s official spokesmen have no idea precisely what is going to happen or precisely when. Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement Monday in the dead language of Latin that, while still alive, he’d be stepping down on Feb. 28, took the cosseted curia around him by surprise. (The last papal resignation was in 1415 at the time of a major schism.)

So, technically, there are no set rules, and Benedict, if he chooses, can make up new ones over the next two weeks. But the general guidelines probably will follow those laid down by John Paul II in 1996.

A premium will be put on secrecy during the conclave itself. The cardinals have to swear they won’t divulge what’s going on. And to make sure that was the case in 2005, the first conclave of the digital age, the Vatican’s Swiss Guards actually raised the floor of the Sistine Chapel to install jamming devices that blocked cellphones and prevented other listening devices from eavesdropping on the deliberations.

But the politicking and prayers that are all part of the selection process began the moment word spread of the pope’s decision to resign. Even in the more predictable past, as John Allen pointed out a decade ago in his authoritative book, Conclave, after a pontiff’s death many cardinals gave interviews, held press conferences, and otherwise maneuvered to influence both the public and their colleagues. In some cases, in what literally were smoke-filled rooms, key decisions were made by a very small group of the church’s most influential princes.

John Paul II understood this process perfectly well. The cardinals “shall abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or commitment of any kind,” he wrote, and they were not supposed to be influenced by friendship, personal animosity, or “the suggestions of the mass media.” But on the other hand the late pope said it was not his intention to prevent “the exchange of views”—thus opening a loophole you could drive through in a Popemobile.

When previous popes lay on their deathbeds, it was regarded as unseemly to do too much lobbying for or against prospective successors. But with this pope still up and about, and a lame duck at that, the old sense of decorum may not apply. And whether loyalty to Benedict’s preferences will win out is an open question. In his last weeks as pope, Benedict may have considerable trouble keeping his scarlet-robed underlings in line.

After the resignation becomes effective at 8 p.m. in Rome the night of February 28, the world’s cardinals will begin assembling for what’s called the General Congregation. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone will hold the position of camerlengo, or acting head of the church, and preside over the congregation when it convenes. At the moment, Vatican sources say that’s likely to be March 6 or 7.

Those cardinals who are over 80 years old can attend these preliminary deliberations, but will not be able to participate in the conclave itself, according to present rules. That means 117 will be left to make the momentous decision. Of those, 61 are European, 19 are Latin American, 14 are North American, 11 are African, 11 are Asian, and one comes from Oceania.

Current speculation based on past rules would have the actual conclave start on March 15 and no later than March 20. But, again, in his final days in office the pope could change that program. The old schedule was based on the notion the pope’s death would come as something of a surprise: funeral preparations would have to be made, time would have to be allowed for church officials and dignitaries to arrive in Rome, days of mourning would be set aside, and so on. But none of those factors apply in this case. Benedict may well want to cut short the time available for the cardinals to politick, posture, and pontificate, as it were. That’s why, conceivably, he could declare new rules convening the conclave itself as early as the first week in March.

When that moment finally does come, the cardinals will be secured inside the Vatican walls. As they proceed into the Sistine Chapel, the order will be given: “Extra omnes”—everyone out! In the meantime thousands of people will be crammed into Saint Peter’s Square and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people around the world will start watching on television to see the color of the smoke that emerges when the ballots are burned after each vote. The process could take minutes, hours or, more likely, days. When no prospective pope gets more than two thirds, a chemical cartridge will be tossed into the little stove to make the smoke come out black. A cartridge for white smoke is waiting if the vote proves decisive.

VATICAN CITY, Vatican:  Cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican 18 April 2005 before the start of the conclave. Shut away from the eyes of the world, Roman Catholic cardinals opened a days-long conclave of ancient tradition and utmost secrecy to elect one of their number as their 265th pope. AFP PHOTO POOL ARTURO MARI  (Photo credit should read ARTURO MARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Arturo Mari/AFP/Getty,ARTURO MARI

Cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on April 18, 2005, before the start of the conclave to replace Pope John Paul II. Shut away from the eyes of the world, Roman Catholic cardinals opened a days-long conclave of ancient tradition and utmost secrecy to elect one of their own.

(This is not exactly rocket science, but, still, the signals can misfire. During the election of Benedict in 2005, the cartridges malfunctioned and the white smoke came out gray. The man who was supposed to ring the bell in Saint Peter’s didn’t get the message right away because the cellphones had been jammed. And those of us out in Saint Peter’s Square were left in considerable confusion. But of course when the news was confirmed, that made the excitement all the more intense.)

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As soon as the vote is taken and the definitive count made, the prospective pope will be asked, “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” And if the man in question answers, “Accepto,” (‘I accept’), from that moment onward he is officially the heir of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ.

But not all have said yes. (In a recent Italian comedy, the camera focuses on one cardinal after another, all thinking, “Please, not me.”) John Paul II, in the procedures he wrote for the papal election, felt the need to stiffen the resolve of those who might succeed him. “I also ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God, who imposes the burden, will sustain him with His hand, so that he will be able to bear it,” wrote John Paul, perhaps never imagining that the successor in question, Joseph Ratzinger, would accept the post, choose the papal name of Benedict XVI, and then, less than eight years later, resign.

As the conclave draws to a close, each cardinal will approach the new pope and kneel before him. He will then be fitted in his new, white papal robes in the Pauline Chapel and led down the Hall of Blessings toward the central window of the Basilica of Saint Peter, as Allen points out, “just above the name of Paul V, the Borgia pope who had the structure built.”

Another senior cardinal will appear before the multitude in the square and the millions watching their televisions and declare in Latin that he has news of great joy. “Habemus Papum,” he will say—We have a pope.

Then, whenever the new pontiff chooses, after the crowd lingers in suspense for a while, he will appear, and speak, and pray, and begin a reign that will last for as long as he lives, or, perhaps, until he decides to retire.