Q&A: What happens next at the Vatican?

By Lindsay Maxfield | Posted - Feb 27th, 2013 @ 11:15am



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VATICAN CITY — While many of the uncertainties have been settled following Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down, a host of questions remain as the Catholic Church prepares to move forward.

The process of electing a new pope is seen as a complex endeavor, complicated by the new law changes Benedict enacted on Monday allowing cardinals to move up the starting date of the conclave.

So what happens next at the Vatican? Religion News Service created a primer on the process used in a conclave to select a new pope. While much, of course, is still left to be decided, RNS provided answers to key questions in this time of transition:

Q: Who governs the church until a new pope is elected?

A: Day-to-day operations are handled by the Vatican Curia, the central bureaucracy. All prelates who head Vatican agencies resign after the death or resignation of a pope. Provisions are made to oversee the papal household, the spiritual needs of Romans and to grant absolutions.

Q: Who is eligible to be elected pope?

A: Technically, any baptized male Catholic is eligible, provided he is not married and in good standing with the church. Since 1378, however, new popes have come from within the College of Cardinals.

Q: Does a conclave ever convene for any other reason?

A: No. Any pope can call together cardinals for advice or any other purpose, but a conclave is only used to elect a pope.

Q: Who may participate in a conclave?

A: As of Nov. 24, 2012, there are 118 cardinals who are under the age of 80 and thus eligible to participate in the conclave. Older retired cardinals may participate in discussions leading up to the conclave but may not vote.

Q: Are women or lay people involved?

A: Outside of cooks or housekeepers, no. Only cardinals — who by definition are male priests — may participate.

Q: Who are the Americans who will participate?

A: There are 11 American cardinals who are eligible to participate. Five of the cardinals head archdioceses — New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Houston; three hold positions in Rome and three are retired. Eight other American cardinals are too old to vote.

Q: What are the factors likely to influence the voting?

A: Officially, the church says only the Holy Spirit will influence the results. But church watchers say a new pope will win based on several criteria: age, nationality, life experience, personality and positions on major issues facing the church.

Q: Who are the front-runners?

A: It’s difficult to tell. The turmoil in the Vatican Curia under Benedict might lead cardinals to look for a younger pope who has shown administrative capacity as well as theological acumen; they might also look for someone with an easier touch with the masses and the media, and who is able to speak for the majority of Catholics who are based in Latin America and Africa.

But a large part of the voting cardinals have a long experience at the Vatican and might look for one of their own to lead the church. As in the case of Benedict’s election, traditional liberal/conservative labels are not useful. The old maxim usually applies: “He who goes in papabile (a candidate for pope) comes out as a cardinal.”

Q: Could an American be elected pope?

A: Technically, yes, and for probably the first time in history, an American — New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan — is considered a strong candidate. But it remains to be seen if cardinals will want to overcome an old taboo and pick the world’s most visible religious leader from the world’s lone superpower.

Q: Are overt campaigning or backroom deals allowed?

A: After the death or resignation of a pope, discussions prior to the conclave are expected, but campaigning is discouraged. Paper ballots are cast in silence, leaving discussions and arguments to be held outside the Sistine Chapel. Alliances are natural, but cardinals are forbidden to buy votes or make deals.

Q: How long does the voting continue?

A: Ballots are cast until a winner receives the necessary two-thirds majority. After three days of unsuccessful balloting, cardinals take a break and resume after a short spiritual talk. Voting then continues for another seven votes, followed by another break, and an additional round of seven votes. After about 30 ballots or about 12 days, cardinals will have to vote between the two candidates who have received the most votes in the last ballot.

Q: Who counts the ballots?

A: The conclave features elaborate voting and vote-counting procedures to prevent fraud. Cardinals are selected by lot to count and double-count the ballots and collect votes from sick cardinals.

Q: How does a cardinal become pope once he is elected?

A: Simply by answering “I accept” to the question, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?”

Q: What does the white smoke mean?

A: Ballots are burned in a special stove, whose chimney is visible to onlookers in St. Peter’s Square. Black smoke means there is no winner; white smoke means a new pope has been elected.

Q: How does the world know a new pope is elected?

A: After white smoke swirls up the chimney, a senior cardinal will announce from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam” — “I announce to you news of great joy. We have a pope.”

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