(Updated November 6, 2023, following Cardinal Ghirlanda’s denial of these reports) 

Late in the day on Saturday, November 4, two news outlets reported rumors that Pope Francis is considering changes to the process for papal elections that would go into effect in advance of the the next conclave. The first article, by the Pillar, was published just after 2:30 p.m. EDT (during the evening in Rome), and — relying on anonymous sources “close to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State” — claimed that Pope Francis had instructed Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda to help revise the rules surrounding the election of a pope to better reflect Francis’s vision of synodality. Less than three hours later, the traditionalist website The Remnant published an “exclusive” by journalist Diane Montagna about a Vatican plan to “potentially revolutionize who elects the Pope.”

On November 6, media outlets LifeSiteNews (LSN) and Catholic News Agency (CNA) published articles reporting on responses to the Pillar and Remnant reports from Cardinal Ghirlanda, who vehemently denied knowledge of or involvement in such a project. LSN reported:

“Before your email I had no news about the Conclave reform that you mention,” wrote the 81-year-old Jesuit cardinal, raised to the cardinalate by Francis in August 2022. “I went to the Internet and saw that it is said that I am working with the Pope for such reform.”

“This is absolutely false,” he added when questioned if he could confirm the reports which were published over the weekend regarding his rumored reforming of papal conclaves. “Since I am not aware of this, I see no point in a meeting,” he added.

CNA quoted from an email sent to EWTN News by the cardinal, in which he stated, “I do not know anything about it and any implication I have in it is a pure lie.” They also said they received an statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, reporting that he “also denied knowledge of such a document.”

The Pillar rejected the reports that their story is false, stating, “The Pillar stands by its reporting.”

Reform is certainly possible

That said, even if the rumors are untrue, some of the reported proposals aren’t completely out of step with suggestions discussed prior to October’s Synod on Synodality, whereas other aspects of the alleged proposals seem completely implausible. Given the buzz that these articles have received on social media, it seems prudent to analyze the plausibility and significance of these proposals.

First, it is important to note that making changes to the way popes are elected is nothing new in the Church. History demonstrates that popes were chosen in many different ways in the first millennium of the Church’s history, and what we today recognize as the College of Cardinals had barely developed when the second millennium began. At many points, the number of cardinal-electors taking part in conclaves was relatively small. During the Great Western Schism, only 9 electors took part in the 1404 conclave that elected Innocent VII. Not long afterwards, only 13 voted in the 1431 conclave that elected Eugene IV.  It wasn’t that long ago that secular rulers had influence over papal elections — Pope Pius X finally put an end to the ability of some European monarchs to veto candidates (“jus exclusivae“) in 1903.

The current Apostolic Constitution dictating the rules of the conclave, Universi Dominici Gregis, was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1996 and amended by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and again in 2013. Pope John Paul’s 1996 constitution replaced Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo, which set the number of Cardinal-electors at 120 (by comparison, there were only 80 cardinals in the 1963 conclave that elected him). Prior to that, Pope Paul also decreed that cardinals over the age of 80 were ineligible to vote.

Pope Benedict’s 2007 amendment to Universi Dominici Gregis removed the provision that after 33 or 34 votes, the pope could be elected by a simple majority. This provision — which was only in effect for one conclave — meant that a determined group of cardinals agreeing upon a candidate by a simple majority, simply had to wait bide their time, rather than seek a supermajority of votes. Interestingly, reports from the second 1978 conclave — which elected Pope John Paul II — claim that Cardinal Giovanni Benelli received 70 votes on the first ballot (but 5 votes short of the required 2/3) before fading and giving way to John Paul.

Where the Pillar and Remnant reports agree

Since none of these rumored proposals are confirmed, it’s quite possible that they will not come to fruition. Nevertheless, the reports by both the Pillar and the Remnant agreed on the substance of two of the proposals. They both have to do with the “general congregation” — the meetings of cardinals prior to the conclave. Traditionally, all of the cardinals — even those over 80 — participate in the general congregation. The dean of the College of Cardinals presides over the meeting. In these meetings, the cardinals discuss the challenges facing the Church and the qualities needed in the new pope. In these meetings, the cardinals become acquainted with one another and often it is here where the leading candidates emerge.

According to the Pillar, “one proposed change would limit general congregations to the cardinals eligible to participate in the conclave election — those under 80 years of age.” This report was corroborated in the Remnant by Montagna, who opined on what she sees as the negative implications of the proposal, “Given the long experience of the cardinals who are over eighty and the pivotal role they play in shaping the ideas of the cardinal-electors, their exclusion would widely be seen as wounding the Sacred College and the papal conclave. It would also reduce to an even smaller minority within the discussions those cardinals who had not been appointed by Pope Francis.”

Logistically speaking, some long-term changes will have to be made. The current Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, is 89 years old and would presumably be ineligible to preside over the general congregation. His 5-year term ends in 2025. The vice dean, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, turns 80 on November 18. If the proposed change was to go forward, it would appear prudent to elect a dean and vice dean 75 or younger so that they would be allowed to preside.

The second proposed change, according to the Pillar, “would reportedly modify the format of the general congregation — limiting the opportunity for speeches to the whole College of Cardinals, which would be replaced by sessions of similar style to the synod of synodality, in which participants sit at round tables of 10 or so participants for ‘spiritual conversations,’ followed by reports to the entire assembly summarizing those table discussions.”  The Remnant’s report is similar, reporting that the format of the general congregations would change, “eliminating plenary sessions (wherein all the cardinals convene as a body) and establishing small working groups with a head to guide discussions, similar to the October 2023 synodal assembly.”

Ironically, many would argue that the general congregation in its current form is where Pope Francis made the positive impression that eventually led to his election. It is said that a plenary address delivered by the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio during the 2013 general congregation was instrumental in establishing him as a viable candidate for the papacy. His off-the-cuff speech, which challenged the Church to go to the peripheries, to evangelize, and to stop being self-referential, so moved the then-Cardinal Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, that he asked Bergoglio to write it down after he delivered it. Furthermore, some accounts suggested that over-80 cardinals such as the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, were influential in promoting Bergoglio as a candidate for pope.

Nevertheless, neither of these changes seems totally implausible to me. Francis has taken part in two papal conclaves and has had plenty of time to think about what improvements might be made to the process, and what changes might help incorporate the principle of synodality into the election of a future pope. His appointments of cardinals from all over the world and from unexpected places like Mongolia, East Timor, and Tonga have already reshaped the college. It seems that the participants in the recent Synodal Assembly were largely pleased with the atmosphere and process, and the implementing it in the general congregation could be an additional step.

The third proposal

The next rumored proposal is about the involvement of non-cardinals, including the laity, in the process. The Pillar reported:

Senior Roman clergy have told The Pillar that there have also been rumors that Pope Francis has considered the idea of inviting lay people to participate in general congregations — which precede the actual conclave voting sessions of cardinals — but The Pillar has been unable to confirm whether that idea has actually been seriously discussed in the Vatican.

This idea, which the Pillar concedes is little more than a rumor, doesn’t seem entirely unfounded. Given the recent changes to the format of meetings of the Synod of Bishops, it would not be completely surprising if the Church was to find a way to incorporate the voices of ordinary faithful Catholics into the pre-conclave discussions. That said, it seems quite late in the game for Vatican leaders to figure out how they would be selected and the role they might play. And if they weren’t pre-selected by the pope himself before the end of the papacy, one imagines the politics — or even fear-mongering — that could come into play if someone other than the pope was to select them.

Ultimately, — if true — the idea is a bit novel but it doesn’t change the conclave itself. Theoretically, it could line up with Francis’s idea of a synodal Church, essentially saying, “Let’s listen to the people of God before making this decision.” (Rather than hearing from retired cardinals about what they want, I guess.)

The Remnant reported a similar rumor but takes it several steps further and is much more sensational. They suggest that inviting non-cardinals to vote in the conclave is on the table:

The Remnant has also learned that Cardinal Ghirlanda is seeking to convince Pope Francis to undertake a truly revolutionary act, by revolutionizing who elects the Pope. Professing to “return to the early Church”, the idea would be to have cardinal-electors, the majority of whom Pope Francis has chosen, comprise seventy-five percent of the vote, while the remaining twenty-five percent would be made up of laymen and women and religious sisters, papally appointed by Pope Francis in advance of the Apostolic See becoming vacant.

If promulgated, the document would widely be seen as representing an ecclesial and theological upheaval of papal elections. While Pope Francis is said to be intent on reforming the papal conclave in a more “synodal” style, we are told he has not yet given a definitive “yes” to the document which, if promulgated, will surely meet with considerable resistance from members of the Sacred College.

Although it would be theoretically possible for laypeople to participate in the election of the pope (and historians agree that it has happened before), this strikes me as extremely implausible. The college of cardinals is not a divine institution but a later development in Church history. The rules for electing a pope have changed and can change. Even if it did happen, it wouldn’t change the substance of the papacy, just how he’s elected. That said, I am extremely doubtful that it would happen before the next conclave. I’ll believe it when I see it.

To me, the Remnant’s theory sounds like the rumor reported by the Pillar after a few rounds of “telephone.”

New proposals are nothing new

Changes (and proposed changes) to the conclave are nothing new. Last year, Robert Mickens wrote in La Croix about the long history of proposed revisions to the process, focusing on two cardinals who advocated for changes in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council: Cardinal Michele Pellegrino of Turin and Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Malines-Brussels, as well as the possible changes raised by the late San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn. Most of the suggestions revolve around making the process more inclusive, perhaps involving heads of bishops’ conferences or even laity. Even though the most radical proposals haven’t been adopted, “every pope in the last hundred years or so (at least those who have lived more than 33 days) has at least tweaked the apostolic constitution regulating the sede vacante and election of the Roman Pontiff,” notes Mickens.

Back in August, Christopher Lamb wrote in The Tablet that following the Synod, “Francis could reform the way the conclave works, making it a more synodal event. The current process involves all the cardinals – the cardinal-electors and those over the age of 80, who are no longer eligible to take part in a conclave – meeting over several days to discuss the Church’s needs before the doors are closed and the voting for the next leader of global Catholicism begins.” Lamb spoke with Professor Alberto Melloni about the future of the general congregation and the conclave, suggesting that non-cardinal, and even laity, might have a role to play in the pre-synod preparations. “Don’t rule out the possibility,” Lamb wrote, “That Francis will find ways for a greater diversity of voices to be involved in the discussions before future conclaves.”

As Mickens wrote, “It would be quite unusual if Francis, who has been revising or updating almost everything in the Church, were to do absolutely nothing.”

(Editor’s note: Final section added after original publication)

Image: Vatican Media

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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