College Of Cardinals to Select New Pope: How the Election Works

In light of the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, effective February 28, the Vatican's College of Cardinals will have to choose a successor. If a replacement is not chosen by then, by law, the temporary leader of the Roman Catholic Church would be Cardinal Camerlengo, currently Tarcisio Bertone.

The College of Cardinals is comprised of 120 cardinals, (although there may be more or less at any given time) under the age of 80 years old. For example, only 115 cardinals were present at the voting of Pope Benedict XVI. They are all bishops elected to the position by the pope at some point whose primary job is to elect a new pope whenever the previous one passes on or in Pope Benedict’s rare case — resigns. No earlier than 15 days and no later than 20 days, the cardinals must meet in conclave at the Sistine Chapel after taking a vow of secrecy.

All cardinals are permitted to enter the conclave meeting, even cardinals who are not eligible to participate within the elected 120. It is under the artistic guise of which Michelangelo painted centuries ago that the cardinals are to conduct their business, completely cut off from the rest of the world as they deliberate. No newspapers, telephones, computers, or any objects that could foster outside influence is not allowed. According to the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, any unmarried Catholic man who has reached an age of “good reason,” though typically a cardinal is chosen.

The exact voting process remains fluid, as it is traditional that each pope can detail how his successor may be chosen though the general outline for the voting process remains the same. For the late Pope John Paul II, the following stipulations included:

— A two-thirds-plus-majority is required to elect a pope. 

— For as long as necessary, two votes are held in the morning and afternoon, for a total of four per day.

— If a new pope is not selected after 12 to 13 days, the cardinals may choose to allow selection of a new pope by a simple majority.

It is currently unknown if whether or not Pope Benedict will have any say in changing up the guidelines. The voting cardinals are given slips of paper in which they are expected to write out their choice for the position. Once three randomly chosen cardinals tally votes, the anticipating public waits for a smoke signal to announce the results. The ballots are burned with a chemical that produces white smoke which declares a new pope has been chosen — black smoke signals that the standard two-thirds majority has not yet produced a candidate.

What will be interesting to look out for in the upcoming papal election is to see if whether or not the next pope will bring back the tradition of the papal coronation which included a crown and the new pope being carried around on the papal throne. Previous Popes John Paul I and John Paul II did not participate in the ritual as a means of doing away with the idea of portraying the pope as royalty and focusing more on the pope’s role as a servant to God. It is more likely than not the following pope will carry on as his predecessors have. 

It is said a new should pope be elected to the position before the end of March.