Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to elect a medieval Pope

Pope Francis at his first public appearance after the conclave
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis to be the 266th Bishop of Rome.  He was elected by secret ballot, each ballot containing the name of one candidate for whom the elector voted, and was elected by at least a two-thirds majority.  The process of papal election has changed repeatedly since Jesus appointed Saint Peter; the most recent change (removing the allowance for a simple majority win if 15 ballots fail to elect a pope) being made by Pope Benedict.  During the Middle Ages papal elections followed systems of unanimous vote, secular arbitration, weighted voting, or approval ballots.

The first thing to understand in a discussion of any medieval election is the difference between the modern concept of elections and the medieval idea of the process.  The election process today is to determine the will of the people.  Medieval elections, ideally, determined the will of God.  This was particularly true for ecclesiastical elections, such as elections for bishops, abbots/abbesses, and popes.  Early Christian philosophers taught, Vox Populi, vox Dei, or, "The will of the people is the will of God."  In practice, this meant that the people of the Roman Province nominated papal candidates, and then the bishops and archbishop of Rome picked the winner by unanimous vote. Similarly, the medieval policy of Sanior et maior pare,  meaning " the older and wiser part," created a system of weighted voting meant to bring election results in line with Divine will.  Basically, priority was given to cardinals with more seniority or who held higher priesthood office.  The thinking was that these older and wiser men were closer to God and more able to know God's will.

 Early medieval dependence on unanimity in papal elections often resulted in schism when a consensus could not be reached.  A schism was generally resolved by Imperial arbitration, meaning the winner was the papal candidate backed by the political authority.

Pope Symmachus
fresco at the Basillica of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, Rome
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons 
In 498/9, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Pope Symmachus decreed that if unanimity could not be reached, and if the previous pope had not nominated a successor, then the next pope could be elected by a simple majority. This did not solve the problem of undecided elections, however, and the emperor continued to choose the winner in these cases.  As time progressed, imperial power waned as the power of the cardinals grew, so that by 1059 the laity was officially excluded from the papal elections, and the Cardinals, not the emperor, were the final authority in choosing the pope.  In 1122 at the Concordat of Worms Emperor Henry III formally renounced his role as arbiter in papal elections.  From here forward, secular rulers would have to influence the elections only indirectly, by influencing groups of cardinals.

Pope Alexander III, center
14th c. manuscript
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Pope Alexander III's Licet de evitanda established the rule of two-thirds majority, and changed the way votes were counted to give all cardinals' votes equal weight.  This rule, established at the Third Lateran Council in 1179, successfully ended the need to defer to secular authority to choose the pope.  Later, Pope Pius wrote concerning the two-thirds rule, "What is done by two-thirds of the sacred college, that is surely of the Holy Ghost, which may not be resisted."

19th c. portrait of Pope Gregory X
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
While not as difficult as finding consensus, a two-thirds majority still sometimes took a long time to reach.  Pope Gregory X, at the Council of Lyon in 1274, addressed this problem by introducing the idea of a "conclave."  The first Pope elected by conclave was Innocent V in 1276.  After a temporary suspension, during which papal elections again took a long time to resolve, Pope Celestine V reinstated the procedure.

From 1305-1352 Cardinal-Deacon Jacobus Gaytanus attended five conclaves.  He then wrote Ordinarium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, containing suggestions for elections based on his experiences from the conclaves.  According to Gaytanus, the College of Cardinals used a system of voting similar to modern approval ballots.  That is, there was no limit to either the number of candidates a cardinal could nominate or a limit to the number candidates a cardinal could vote for.  Combining approval ballots with a two-thirds rule (as opposed to a simple majority) meant members of the College usually had to participate in several rounds of voting.  Beginning in 1455, multiple-round candidates needed at least one vote in the previous round of voting to continue to the next round.  This is called "access voting."  Access voting and approval ballots continued to be the way the College elected the pope until 1621, when the Church changed the procedure to categorical voting.

From Imperial appointment to approval ballots, the system of electing a pope underwent several changes during the thousand-year span of the Middle Ages.  The medieval Church was looking for a system that would ensure that the pope was the man God wanted for the job.  Modern Catholics tend to view a papal election in terms of who the cardinals thought would be best for the job.  I wonder which, or both, views the members of the College kept in mind as they cast their ballots for Pope Francis.


  • Uckelmen, Joel and Uckelman, Sara L. Strategy and manipulation in medieval elections. Paper given at the COMSOC seminar, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 28 Oct 2010. University of Amsterdam.(found here)
  • Colomer, Josep M. and McLean, Iain. Electing popes: Approval balloting and qualified-majority rule. Journal of interdisciplinary history, xxix:i (summer, 1998), 1-22. (found here)