Why Are Some Suggesting That Francis’ Election Was Invalid?

Q1: I’ve read Vatican-commentators who claim that Pope Francis’ election may have been invalid, because he agreed to an agenda reforming the Church as the other cardinals wanted him to, and they say you can’t validly be elected Pope if you’ve cut a deal in advance of the conclave like that.  Can this be true?  They quote the law and it sounds pretty convincing….  –Marion

Q2: Is it true that according to canon law, a Jesuit cannot become Pope? –Phil

A: Many Catholics are well aware that in some parts of the world, Pope Francis’ popularity is on the wane.  This might explain why there’s a minority out there that seems very willing to jump on board, when questions arise about the validity of the 2013 conclave that elected him.

For obvious reasons, this is potentially a very serious issue!  Since papal conclaves are held in secret, we non-Cardinals will never have any direct knowledge of what actually took place in the Sistine Chapel back in March 2013.  Consequently, suggestions that something went procedurally amiss are usually based on speculation and rumor—which means, in other words, that they are baseless.

But the issue which Marion mentions is different, because this time it’s based on a very public statement made by Pope Francis himself.  The whole controversy arose because of an interview the Pope gave last year to Il Messaggero, a major Italian newspaper, in which he stated in Italian,

I follow that which the cardinals requested during the general congregations before the conclave.  I’m going in that direction.  The council of eight cardinals, an external organism, emerged from there.  It was requested to help in reforming the curia….. My decisions are the fruit of the meetings before the conclave.  I have done nothing alone.

Why would this raise any eyebrows?  Well, because Universi Dominici Gregis, the current law governing the functioning of conclaves which was promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1996, happens to say this:

I likewise forbid the Cardinals before the election to enter into any stipulations, committing themselves of common accord to a certain course of action should one of them be elevated to the Pontificate. These promises too, should any in fact be made, even under oath, I also declare null and void (UDG 82).

On the surface, therefore, it looks like Pope Francis announced to the world in 2014 that he had “cut a deal in advance of the conclave,” as Marion put it, and is still abiding by it.  What on earth is going on here?

Since the conclave in question took place fairly recently, most of us should be able to recall clearly that the off-the-record, daily pre-conclave meetings of the assembled Cardinals were said to focus heavily on the need to reform the Vatican Curia.  The dysfunctionality of the Roman bureaucracy was of course already well known to them; their discussions seem primarily to have centered around the best way(s) to correct it.  During these pre-conclave gatherings, various individual Cardinals in turn addressed the group, presenting their own personal concerns and ideas about reform.  Engaging in this sort of frank dialogue is, understandably, the very reason why these meetings take place before a conclave officially starts.

As we all know, Cardinal Bergoglio was present at these meetings, and so he naturally heard the debate.  His recent remarks to Il Messaggero, therefore, make perfect sense: Francis says that he heard the various proposals that his fellow-Cardinals were recommending in those pre-conclave meetings, and is now acting on them.  But does this constitute a violation of conclave law?  Let’s take a closer look at the paragraph of Universi Dominici Gregis already quoted above.

When read in isolation, paragraph 82 might seem to a casual reader to be frustratingly vague.  It would almost seem to suggest that before a conclave takes place, the Cardinals aren’t allowed to agree on problems, and/or identify possible strategies to resolve them!  In actual fact, however, the true meaning of this prohibition is crystal-clear, if we read it in its full context.  John Paul II intended paragraph 82 to dovetail with the paragraph immediately before it (that’s why 82 includes the word “likewise”).   So what does the preceding paragraph 81 say?

The Cardinal electors shall further abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons. If this were in fact done, even under oath, I decree that such a commitment shall be null and void and that no one shall be bound to observe it; and I hereby impose the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae upon those who violate this prohibition. It is not my intention however to forbid, during the period in which the See is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election (UDG 81).

In other words, these paragraphs of the law governing papal conclaves pertain to the very real possibility of a faction of Cardinals agreeing to support a particular candidate, in exchange for his promise, if he is elected, to do something that they want.  Paragraph 81 states unequivocally that if such an agreement were made, and the candidate were in fact elected Pope, he would not be obliged to adhere to such a promise.  And the following paragraph notes that “likewise,” members of a faction whose pet-candidate was elected Pope would not be required to keep any promises that they might have made to him before his election.

It should be evident that the notion of a group of Cardinals, secretly banding together and cutting a deal to promote a particular candidate for Pope, is a far cry from an elected Pope freely choosing to accept some/most/all of the ideas proffered by his fellow Cardinals during pre-conclave discussions about the Church’s problems.  As the Brits would say, they’re about as different as chalk and cheese.

On top of that, any claim that the former Cardinal Bergoglio would have agreed to be a candidate for the papacy, and promised to do certain things as Pope in exchange for votes, is contradicted by the well known fact that he never wanted the job.  To get an idea of how opposed to the notion Bergoglio was, check out this leaked account of what happened during the 2005 conclave which elected Joseph Ratzinger—during which voting Jorge Bergoglio was consistently in second place.  Apparently there was a very real possibility that if Bergoglio had been elected back then, he intended to refuse to accept the election (which anyone elected Pope has the right to do, as per UDG 87).

But if that’s not enough to convince readers that the idea of the invalidity of Francis’ election is utterly groundless, there’s more.  Let’s go back to UDG 81 and 82, and look at the wording more carefully. If, for the sake of argument, Cardinal Bergoglio really had banded together with a group of his fellow Cardinals, and agreed to undertake certain things if they voted for him, what are the consequences of his making such a deal?

Actually, the answer is quite clear, for those who bother to look!  Paragraph 81 says that if Cardinals make promises in exchange for voting a certain way, “such a commitment shall be null and void and that no one shall be bound to observe it; and I hereby impose the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae upon those who violate this prohibition.”  It is the “commitment” (i.e., the promises made), and not the election, that is null and void.  Note that while the wording is harsh, and the ultimate penalty of excommunication is levied on those Cardinals (but not on their candidate!) who bargain with their votes, the paragraph does not say that the election would be invalid.

Although the threat of excommunication is absent from paragraph 82, its wording is similar.  Regarding promises made by a Cardinal in exchange for the votes of his confreres, “these promises too, should any in fact be made, even under oath, I also declare null and void.”  The text is unequivocal: the promises are null and void—not the election itself!

In short, this is a non-story.  There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to be concerned that the Pope’s recent remarks revealed any problem with his election to the papacy.

Phil’s question is easier to address.  There are, sadly, some anti-Catholic American Christians out there who have recently been suggesting that Pope Francis was not validly elected, “because a Jesuit can’t be Pope.”  This claim is, of course, never accompanied by any sort of evidence to back it up.

The issue of who can be elected Pope was addressed in “Canon Law and the Upcoming Conclave,” but in a nutshell, any bishop can be elected (c. 332.1)  If the Cardinal-electors choose a man who is not a bishop, he must be consecrated a bishop immediately, and he then becomes Pope once he accepts his election.  Historically, this has indeed happened: Gregory XVI was a Camaldolese monk, and not a bishop when he was elected Pope in 1831.

Note that Gregory XVI was also a member of a religious institute.  There is no prohibition whatsoever on the Cardinals electing a Jesuit, or a Franciscan (Nicholas IV was elected in 1288, only a few decades after the Franciscans had come into existence), a Dominican (like St. Pius V, elected in 1566), an Augustinian (Eugene IV was elected in 1431) or any other member of a religious institute.  Period.

In any case, think about it: every Cardinal who entered the conclave in March 2013 had his own copy of Universi Dominici Gregis, the current law on conclave procedure, provided for him in advance at his seat in the Sistine Chapel.  On top of that, the Cardinal-electors included in their ranks some of the finest canon lawyers on earth.  Does it really make sense to think that they all somehow managed to botch the election, by choosing a man who was canonically ineligible for the job—and that the only ones who have noticed this are a tiny handful of protestants in the U.S.?  The sheer absurdity of such an idea should be obvious to all.

So where are they getting this idea, then?  It could be that they are confused by the promise made by every Jesuit, at the time of his final profession as a member of the Society of Jesus: “I will never strive or ambition, not even indirectly, to be chosen or promoted to any prelacy or dignity in or outside the Society.”  The former Cardinal Bergoglio’s conduct was fully in keeping with this promise; as was said earlier, he made it abundantly clear to all that he had no desire to be Pope.  An excellent discussion of the reality of a Jesuit Pope can be read here, but in general, it may be that the whole notion looks “wrong” to some people, simply because it has never happened before!

To sum up, there is zero evidence that anything went wrong at the 2013 papal conclave.  Both Catholics and non-Catholics alike are not obliged to like Francis; they just have to acknowledge that like it or not, he really is the Pope.  And that’s that.

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