Election of new pontiff: events during the sede vacante – updates

The events between the announcement of the resignation of Benedict XVI and the commencement of the sede vacante, reported here, highlighted three areas of papal authority: i] the extent to which these were subject to canon law; ii] “business as usual” activities – specific decisions of Benedict XVI associated with his papal authority: appointments, resignations, &c; and iii] actions relating to future events concerning the conduct of the sede vacante and conduct of the conclave, including its timing.

This post outlines further canon law issues relating to the period from the start of the sede vacante until the new pope assumes papal authority, defined in Universi Dominici Gregis as

“After his acceptance, the person elected, if he has already received episcopal ordination, is immediately Bishop of the Church of Rome, true Pope and Head of the College of Bishops. He thus acquires and can exercise full and supreme power over the universal Church.

If the person elected is not already a Bishop, he shall immediately be ordained Bishop,” [at 88]

Pope Benedict‘s resignation speech alluded to some of the conflicts within the papacy, when he said

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are

To most Roman Catholics, his position as Spiritual Head transcends that of the mere titular recognition of his position in the hierarchy, and acknowledges his importance as a successor within the Petrine ministry and his role as an unifying focus for the faithful throughout the world. Consequently, Benedict’s resignation was not welcomed universally, some recalling the statement of Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, former personal secretary to John Paul II who said that the pontiff (J-P II) chose to stay on until the very end because he believed that “one does not step down from the cross”.

Against this view, events of the present sede vacante have highlighted the centrality of the pope to the on-going functioning of the Church, even for this relatively short period.  This is implicitly acknowledged in the changes made by Normas nunnullas, which introduced the possibility of the College of Cardinals granting a faculty for an earlier start to the Conclave,

“. . . . . . from the moment when the Apostolic See is lawfully vacant, the Cardinal electors who are present must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent before beginning the Conclave; however, the College of Cardinals is also granted the faculty to anticipate the beginning of the Conclave if all the Cardinal electors are present as well as the faculty to defer, for serious reasons, the beginning of the election for a few additional days.  . . . . .”[at 37].

The resignation of Pope Benedict, announced on 11 February and effective on 28 February, thus added 17 days to the period before the permissible commencement of the Conclave. In practice, however, these changes make little difference and the Conclave is expected to start on about 11 March rather than on 14 March. The cessation of Benedict’s papal authority was symbolically marked with the destruction of the principal seals of office, and on the coat of arms of the Holy See, the papal tiara over the keys is replaced with the umbraculum indicating the lack of a Pope and the governance of the Camerlengo.

During the sede vacante period the central government of the Catholic Church becomes temporarily suspended as required by Universi Dominici Gregis, (UDG). This includes the following provisions

  • the College of Cardinals has no power or jurisdiction in matters which pertain to the Supreme Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office; such matters are to be reserved completely and exclusively to the future Pope, [UDG 1].
  • the government of the Church is entrusted to the College of Cardinals solely for the dispatch of ordinary business and of matters which cannot be postponed and for the preparation of everything necessary for the election of the new Pope, [UDG 2].
  • the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church, much less allow any of these rights to lapse, either directly or indirectly, even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope. All the Cardinals are obliged to defend these rights, [UDG 3].
  • laws issued by the Roman Pontiffs can in no way be corrected or modified, nor can anything be added or subtracted, nor a dispensation be given even from a part of them, especially with regard to the procedures governing the election of the Supreme Pontiff. [UDG 4].

In addition, the heads of the Roman Curia cease to exercise most of their duties, with the exception of the Cardinal Camerlengo, who organizes the Conclave inter alia, and the Major Penitentiary, who continues his normal role.  Also remaining in post are: the Vicar of Rome, the Archpriest of St Peter’s and Vicar General of Vatican City, for matters concerning the pastoral care of souls; the Substitute of the Secretariat of State, the Secretary for Relations with States, the Secretaries of the Curial Departments and the papal Almoner, all answerable to the College of Cardinals. The Papal Representatives abroad continue at their diplomatic missions.

The Vatican Information Service reports that the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Governorate of Vatican City State has issued four stamps – €0.70; €0.85; €2.00; and €2.50 – for use during the sede vacante. The European convention with the Vatican City State permits only one new coin design per year, although an extra one is allowed in the case of a sede vacante. In addition to these €2.00 coins of legal tender, a limited number of “collectible” €5.00 and €10.00 coins have also been minted, although these may be used within Vatican City.

In addition to issues of Church governance and administration, certain liturgical modifications are necessary in the absence of a pope, (i.e. removal of reference in the Eucharistic prayer, and in Rome, an additional removal of a reference to the Bishop of Rome), and additional Votive Masses may be said – in particular, Pro Eligendo Summo Pontifice (for the election of a Pope) the use of which is restricted to the sede vacante.

Update – pm, 5 March

Updated information on developments at the General Congregations was given by Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office, at this afternoon’s press conference To date, three General Congregations have taken place, and at today’s, the Cardinals considered: the activities of the Holy See and its relations with bishops throughout the world; Church renewal in light of Vatican Council II; the Church’s position and the need for the New Evangelization in today’s world with its diverse cultural environments.

Number 37 of Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio concerning the beginning of the Conclave was presented to the prelates but no decision regarding its date was made. Rorate Caeli reports

“[t]he Holy See Press Office confirmed today that, of the 115 Cardinal-Electors who will come to the Conclave, 5 have still not arrived to take part at the General Congregations: Cardinal Lehmann (Mainz), Cardinal Naguib (Alexandria Patriarch Emeritus), Cardinal Nycz (Warsaw), Cardinal Pham Minh Mân (Vietnam), Cardinal Tong Hon (Hong Kong).

The conclave cannot be anticipated from the 15th if all participating Cardinal-Electors are not present. When all 115 are present, a simple majority of those present may vote for its anticipation, according to the last motu proprio of Benedict XVI.”

[However, see the note “Absent cardinals are not late” on Ed Peters’ blog].

With regard to the Conclave itself, preparations have begun in the Sistine Chapel and it is now closed to visitors.  In terms of media coverage, there will be 4,432 temporarily-accredited journalists in addition to the 600 permanently-accredited journalists. These represent 1,004 news outlets, 65 nations, and 24 languages.  Changes in the voting procedures initiated in Universi Dominici Gregis necessitated modifications to the chalice urns used for the ballots, and journalists have been shown the three new chalice urns designed during John Paul II’s pontificate, principally to make them more functional for the intended use, but also to make them uniform.

4 thoughts on “Election of new pontiff: events during the sede vacante – updates

    • But that’s what happens in large organisations. Remember how long it took for the successor to Rowan Williams to emerge?

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