ROME – H.L. Mencken once famously quipped that love is like war, in that it’s easy to begin but very hard to stop. Had Mencken plied his journalistic trade in the Internet age, he might well have added rumors to that list, which are notoriously easy these days to put into circulation and virtually impossible to extinguish once they’re in the digital ether.
That may help explain why, despite two separate denials of mounting intensity, speculation continues to make the rounds that Pope Francis has tasked a veteran Italian cardinal and canon lawyer with preparing changes to the rules governing the next papal election, including the possibility of the participation of laity, either beforehand or even in the balloting itself.
On Friday, veteran Italian journalist Massimo Franco published an essay in the country’s paper of record, Corriere della Sera, under the provocative headline, “The ghost document that ‘changes’ the Conclave: Denials and tensions. The hypothesis of an attack against Pope Francis.”
Franco quotes Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the canon law expert whose name has been linked to the rumors about conclave changes, basically issuing a flat denial: “It’s a lie that I’m preparing a document on the conclave,” the 81-year-old said. “It’s false that I saw the pope to discuss it. The reality is that I don’t know anything, and I’ve never been asked for an opinion. I’m not involved. If something is being prepared elsewhere, I don’t know about it.”
Noting that the reports originally came from two conservative American Catholic news sites, Franco styles the situation as another reflection of a polarized church. He quotes an unnamed figure he describes as “very close to Francis” who denounced the rumors as the “dishonesty of whoever arrives at such lies in order to discredit the Pontiff,” seeing it as “an action of the Evil One who wants to divide the Church with lies.”
As Franco rightly notes, in Catholic argot, invoking the devil is tantamount to sounding the loudest alarm you’ve got.
While there’s no question that divisions in Catholicism run deep, what’s not immediately clear is precisely how these reports, in particular, would amount to an “attack” on Francis, since, if anything, they seem likely to make his most ardent admirers happy.
After all, they don’t suggest any corruption, abuse of power or doctrinal heresy, and politically speaking, the perception that Francis may be considering involving laity in the conclave process – almost regardless of what eventually happens – may help the pope at least as much as it hurts.
In other words, if this is an attack, it seems pretty off-target.
While we wait to see how things shake out, there are three other bits of context worth bearing in mind.
First, as I’ve noted before, in some ways it’s surprising Francis hasn’t already issued a new set of conclave rules. Three of his four predecessors issued their own norms governing papal elections, and the only reason Pope John Paul I didn’t do so is because he wasn’t around long enough. We know he planned to do so, because he discussed it with Italian journalist Gian Franco Svidercoschi, including the possibility of including the presidents of bishops’ conferences among the electors.
(Franco actually cited the Crux piece in which I made that point, adding that “to believe that these precedents are enough to stop the attacks, however, is an illusion,” and of course he’s right – in the Church, like everywhere else, facts rarely get in the way of a good fight.)
Second, if Francis were to decree that non-cardinals could participate in the next papal election, it might be spun as a big deal, but it hardly would be unprecedented.
We could start with the fact that the first use of the term “cardinal” to designate a cleric of the city of Rome dates to the sixth century, which means that cardinals had no role in the choice of popes for at least 500 years. It wasn’t until 1059 that the electoral body was restricted to cardinals, and even after that, non-cardinals occasionally cast ballots.
In 1417, for example, a conclave took place during the Council of Constance in order to heal a schism involving three rival claimants to the papacy. In order to produce a clear-cut result to which everyone could agree, the electoral body was composed of 23 cardinals and 30 representatives of the five nations represented at the council, meaning England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Those non-cardinal delegates were clergy, including bishops, religious superiors, and deacons, though some of those deacons were essentially honorary positions who functioned as members of lay society, such as lawyers, politicians and university professors.
(As a footnote, one of the delegates representing Italy was Pandolfo Malatesta, at the time an archdeacon from Bologna. He was also a relative of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, a secular ruler of Rimini who would go on to become the one and only victim in Church history of an “infernal canonization,” meaning an infallible declaration by a pope that a soul is destined for hell. That, however, is a story for another time.)
The result was that in 1417, not only did cardinals not have the exclusive right to elect the pope, they weren’t even a majority. So, don’t say it hasn’t happened before.
As far as lay participation in a conclave goes, it’s worth recalling that in the early centuries of the Church, all bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, were chosen by a consensus of the clergy and laity of the diocese.
Over time that practice changed, but even in later eras secular monarchs in Europe claimed (and exercised) a right to veto papal candidates, which was known as the Jus exclusivae.
Though that right was never officially recognized in Church law, and several popes over the centuries issued decrees seeking to either curtail or abolish it, the “right of exclusion” continued to be employed until the early 20th century, when Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria successfully prevented the election of Italian Cardinal Mariano Rampolla in 1903, in a conclave that instead produced Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto as Pope Pius X.
In other words, it’s hardly as if laity have never before had a voice in picking popes, even if the laity involved most recently were of a fairly rarified sort.
To sum up: Maybe Pope Francis is contemplating changes to conclave rules, maybe he isn’t. (Though if he is, he apparently isn’t discussing it with Ghirlanda.)
But even if we take recent reports completely at face value, none of it would amount to a true novelty – because with a Church with more than 2,000 years of history under its belt, pretty much everything, and its opposite, has happened at least once.