The papal election process demystified

Photo by Seamus Doyle/
Photo by Seamus Doyle/ [email protected]

As Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, assumes his duties as the leader of the Catholic Church today, local experts shared insight with the Tribune and shed some light on the secretive and secure ancient process that left many surprised this time around.

“Lots of speculation about ‘front-runners’ and various candidates (was) pretty futile … Bergoglio was a surprise to me and to many,” said the Rev. Steven Avella, a professor of history, Catholic priest and one of Marquette’s most prominent papal experts.

Much of the uncertainty leading up to the papal selection can be attributed to the actual conclave process.

All cardinals under the age of 80 were eligible to vote in last week’s conclave, and 117 cardinals cast their ballots. The first phase of the voting process is called the “pre-scrutiny” phase, in which each cardinal receives at least two paper ballots.

Then, nine election officials are randomly selected. Three of these, called “scrutinizers,” count the votes. Three “infirmarii” count the votes of those cardinals too sick to be in the chapel, and afterward, three “revisers” re-count all the votes.

In the voting itself, each cardinal writes his selection for pope on a rectangular piece of paper in handwriting that cannot be recognized as his own. They then proceed to fold and hold the paper above their heads. 

To begin the “scrutiny” phase, the cardinals proceed to the altar one by one and place their ballot in a “paten,” the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during Mass. He then takes that paten and slides his vote into a large chalice.

This portion of the election process was of great interest to the Rev. John Laurance, a Jesuit and professor in the theology department.

“I was fascinated by the reported way in which each cardinal, for every ballot, goes to the front of the chapel and, on his knees, lays his filled in ballot on the altar, making a declaration before God that he does so without any outside influence and solely for the good of the Church,” Laurance said.

When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first scrutinizer mixes up the ballots and hands them to the second two for counting. The second scrutinizer counts each individual ballot by transferring them to a second chalice. If 117 votes were not cast, the ballots are burned, and the voting process restarts.

To count the votes, the scrutinizers read each ballot aloud in front of the cardinals while tallying the votes one by one. Ballots with more than one name or no name at all are discarded.

After the votes are tallied, the revisers move to the “post-scrutiny” phase, where the three cardinals check the entire process. After verification, the ballots are burned to produce the smoke. If the smoke is black, the election process starts again. If it is white, a new pope has been selected by a two-thirds majority.

As well as being a very secretive process, the papal election system is extremely secure.

First, the system is completely manual, so it is immune to technological risk or difficulties. The ritual used to cast a vote, in front of all the cardinals, is a defense against stuffing the ballot box.

Most important, during the conclave, the cardinals all sleep and eat inside the Vatican together and are not permitted to leave until a pope is chosen.

“The fact (is) that cardinals, if not all saints, are … all decent, God-fearing men, otherwise in this day and age they would never have risen so high in the hierarchy of the Church,” Laurance said. “And so when they take a solemn vow to preserve secrecy they can be counted on to keep it.”

William Thorn, a professor of jouranlism and a Vatican expert on campus, shared in the surprise of Pope Francis’ election.

“I was stunned, first of all,” Thorn said. “I didn’t think it would be a Latin American, although it was certainly a possibility. (Bergoglio) was actually number two last time around. I think this makes a lot of sense.”