ROME – A prominent progressive supporter of Pope Francis has suggested changes to the rules governing conclaves to slow down the election of the next pope, in order to guard against the possibility that well-timed leaks or other forms of interference, perhaps related to charges of sexual abuse, might influence the outcome.

Specifically, veteran Italian Church historian Alberto Melloni has proposed that there be only one ballot each day the cardinals are gathered in the Sistine Chapel to select a new pope, followed by a day of pause for conversation and reflection.

Melloni also called for the eventual acceptance of the election result to be slowed down as well, giving a candidate who receives more than two-thirds of the vote, and thus who’s elected as pope, a full night to consider and to consult before making a final decision.

Under such a system, Melloni noted, the conclave of 2005, which required just four ballots and roughly 24 hours to elect Pope Benedict XVI, would have lasted ten full days instead.

Melloni is best-known as a key figure in the “Bologna school” associated with the late historian Giuseppe Alberigo, which produced a multi-volume history of Vatican II (1962-65) that popularized a progressive reading of the council.

His essay on the conclave appeared Feb. 26 as part of the online edition of Il Mulino (“The Mill”), a popular Italian journal of culture and politics.

In effect, Melloni argues that current events, including the Russian war in Ukraine and the Israeli/Hamas conflict in Gaza, offer reminders that there are forces on the world stage seeking some form of either regional or global hegemony – and that the Catholic Church, as he puts it, is a “natural antagonist and objective obstacle” to such ambitions.

For all its faults, Melloni argues, the Catholic Church is a uniquely unarmed but nevertheless powerful global institution, which various states and non-state actors might wish to influence or subvert.

In that context, Melloni says, the clerical sexual abuse scandals have created “a button with which anyone can ostracize anyone else, leaving it to history to sort out justified accusations from the unjustified, and to God to compensate the innocent and punish the guilty.”

For that reason, Melloni suggests, the next conclave “will have to protect the elected person from the risk of being delegitimized by an accusation designed to divide cardinals who challenge the election of an unworthy person from those who instead consider the election valid, at least for the presumption of innocence.”

Historically, Melloni argues, the function of a conclave has not been to ensure that the holiest or most qualified person is elected pope, but simply to guarantee that the outcome would be considered legitimate and the authority of the new pope accepted.

In an age of artificial intelligence, social media and mass computing power, Melloni writes, that function faces new threats related to the capacity to circulate damaging accusations against public figures on a mass scale and in real time.

Doing so with regard to the abuse scandals, Melloni says, is merely a question of “will and means,” both of which “can arise within states, or in those large companies that act like superpowers of computing and which can place their megalomaniac servility at the service of occult powers, as we’ve already seen in various public affairs.”

To remain compactly behind the newly elected pope even in the teeth of such an attack, Melloni writes, will require a compact and united College of Cardinals truly certain of its choice, for which more time may be required.

Lengthening the conclave, he argues, “would guarantee time for conversation and discussion within the college, which is more necessary than ever to reach a more shared electoral process and to allow candidates time to withdraw, in the well-founded expectation that someone could use true or even plausible information against them.”

A slower process, Melloni says, would also counteract “the media tendency to paint a conclave with the colors of an American primary, made up of tricks, money and ideological maneuvers.”

Moreover, Melloni also says that the custom of holding two ballots back-to-back inside the conclave was designed to replace the older custom of “accession,” in which a cardinal could change his vote after a ballot in which no one received a two-thirds majority. The system was cumbersome and also compromised the secrecy of the first vote, since ballots had to be checked to ensure that a cardinal wasn’t voting for the same candidate twice. The option was suppressed in 1903.

As to whether Pope Francis might adopt such a reform, Melloni says “probably yes,” despite voicing concern that the advisors on Church law to whom the pontiff might entrust such a project lack both the “ecclesiological talent” and “legal virtuosity” of earlier generations of canonists.

Nonetheless, Melloni argues, a reform is necessary to avoid the risk that “warring nations and the great players in the media market” might subvert the conclave, provoking a “fatal impasse in the unity of the Church.”