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Canonical Rules on the Resignation of a Pontiff, and the Election of a New Pontiff (part II of II)

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The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.  Dante has previously written blog posts on canon law and the papacy:  Canon Law Update; Citizenship in the Vatican City State; Medieval Canon Law; and The Papal Inquisition in Modena


This book, entitled "Bullarium Romanum novissimum" [New Roman Papal Bulls], from 1638, contains a collection of papal documents from Leo I (440-461) until Urban VIII (1623-1644).
This book, entitled “Bullarium Romanum novissimum” [New Roman Papal Bulls], from 1638, contains a collection of papal documents from Leo I (440-461) until Urban VIII (1623-1644).
In my last post, I discussed the canonical rules related to the resignation of a Pontiff.  In this post, I focus on what comes next—specifically the rules concerning papal succession, that is, the Successors of Saint Peter.

Below are some of the common questions associated with the election of a new pope.


What are the rules governing the election of a new pontiff?

The election of a new pontiff is regulated by an Apostolic Constitution titled Universi Dominici Gregis (The Lord’s Universal Flock): On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff, which was issued by Pope John Paul II on February 22, 1996. The genre “Apostolic Constitution” is one of eight that together form The Constitutions of the Holy ApostlesUniversi Dominici Gregis superseded Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo: On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff, given on October 1, 1975.  In turn, Universi Dominici Gregis was amended by a motu proprio (letter issued on the pontiff’s own initiative) put forth by Pope Benedict XVI on June 11, 2007.


Who participates in the Conclave that elects the new pontiff, and what secrecy rules bind them?

According to the Universi Dominici Gregis, the College of electors of the supreme pontiff is composed solely of the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. However, those Cardinals who have reached the age of eighty (80) before the day when the Apostolic See becomes vacant are excluded. So Cardinals who are 80 on February 28, 2013 may not participate in the election of the new pontiff.

Cardinal electors are sworn to perpetual secrecy on this collective oath:

We, the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, of the Order of Bishops, of Priests and of Deacons, promise, pledge and swear, as a body and individually, to observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, and to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff or those which, by their very nature, during the vacancy of the Apostolic See, call for the same secrecy.

The collective oath is followed by an individual oath: “And I, N. Cardinal N., so promise, pledge and swear.” Then, each Cardinal places his hand on the Bible adding, “So help me God and these Holy Gospels which I now touch with my hand.”


What are the secrecy rules that apply to the whole election process?

This drawing of St. Peter, the first Pontiff, is included in "Bullarium Romanum novissimum."
This drawing of St. Peter, the first Pontiff, is included in “Bullarium Romanum novissimum.”

The secrecy rule applies to the whole election period including the time immediately prior to the election in which the cardinal electors may not communicate by any means, including verbally, with persons outside the area where the election is taking place. Cardinal electors may not receive newspapers or periodicals of any sort, listen to the radio or watch television. Strict rules also ensure that no recording or broadcasting devices of any type are present at the place of election.

Several other rules aim at shielding the cardinal electors from outside influence during the deliberation and voting process. Universi Dominici Gregis prohibits “all possible forms of interference, opposition and suggestion whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree, or any individual or group, might attempt to exercise influence on the election of the Pope.” A particular reference is made to the crime of simony, that is, the buying or selling of spiritual or Church-related things. All of these prohibitions are subject to the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae (immediate). 


How is the Conclave conducted?

The election takes place exclusively in the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. The only form by which the electors can manifest their vote in the election of the Roman pontiff is by secret ballot. In fact, Universi Dominici Gregis repealed other forms of election, such as acclamation, and expressly stated that, “the form of electing the Roman Pontiff shall henceforth be per scrutinium [search or examination] alone.”

Prior to the act of election, each cardinal takes the following additional oath: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

The following statement is also required from each cardinal elector: “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.”

Each cardinal casts a secret vote, which contains the words “Eligo in summum pontificem” (“I elect as supreme Pontiff”). Specific rules regulate the casting of the votes by cardinal electors who, due to health reasons, may not attend the act of election at the Sistine Chapel.

Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio requires a two-thirds supermajority vote to elect a new pontiff. If, after repeated balloting, the supermajority has not been reached, a new vote is held. This new ballot should only list the names of the two individuals who received the greatest number of votes in the immediate last round. In this case, only an absolute majority is required. If the required quorum is not reached, the votes are simply burned and produce a black smoke. When the required quorum is reached, the votes are burned with chemicals, which produce white smoke as a means to inform the masses of the election of a new pontiff.


May a non-cardinal be elected as pope?

Universi Dominici Gregis states that, “If the person elected is not already a Bishop, he shall immediately be ordained Bishop.” Canon law thus provides that any unwed male may be proposed outside of the Conclave. If he accepts, he is to be ordained by the Cardinal Dean of the College of Cardinals.


How is the new Pope’s assent to the election expressed?

The exchange between the Dean of the College of Cardinals (DCC) and the newly elected pontiff is the following:

DCC: “Acceptáste electiónem de te canónice factam de Summum Pontificem?” (Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?)

The New Pontiff accepts.

DCC: “Quo nómine vis vocári?” (By what name do you wish to be called?)

New Pontiff: “Vocábor… [NAME]” (I will be called …”). This is a free election of the new Pope and no canonical rules exist with respect to his decision.

The following is the style of the announcement of a new pope that is given in Latin by the cardinal protodeacon, who is the senior cardinal-deacon, from the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican:

“Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam! Eminentissimum ac Reverendisimum Dominum, Dominum [NAME].” [I announce to you a great joy: “We have a Pope!  The most eminent and most reverend Lord [first name] Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [last name], who takes for himself the name of [Papal Name].”

After the announcement, the new pope is presented to the people and he gives his first Urbi et Orbi (to the city and world) blessing.


The Law Library of Congress, in particular, our Rare Book Collection, contains thousands of canon law materials, which we invite you to explore.



  1. What a wonderful (story)segment to share with the people. I for one always wondered about the process on the election of a new pope. Thank you for posting this artical as it will help to truly understand all that will be happening come February 28, 2013 and after.

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