Pope News & Views -- Commentary
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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

Papal election process in need of an update


One of the progressive things Pope Benedict XVI can do is to inform the cardinals that they have voted as a body for the last time. The time has come, the new pope should say, to reform the system for electing the pontiff to make it less archaic and fairer.

The problem is with the voters, not the papal election itself, which is one of the few vestiges of democracy within the Catholic church. The College of Cardinals made sense during the Middle Ages when they headed the seven major churches or dioceses around Rome. The seven cardinals worked closely with the pope, the bishop of Rome, in determining church policy, but their principal prerogative was to elect the next bishop of Rome, who by that office became the new pope.

Successive popes over the centuries have greatly expanded the college. Paul VI and John Paul II especially have internationalized it. But the real flaw is that not one of the cardinals is elected. All are appointed by the pope. Also, aside from a few notable exceptions, the men named cardinals are bishops of most of the world’s major dioceses, not necessarily the brightest prelates in the nation. In addition, in the present college there is no representation from a number of Catholic countries with majority Catholic populations. For example, there is no cardinal in Paraguay, where Catholics make up 88 percent of the population, but there is a cardinal in Cameroon, where Catholics are only 26 percent.

The solution is a simple one. Give the power of electing the next pope to the heads of each national conference of Catholic bishops. All these leaders, some of whom are cardinals, have been elected by their brother bishops. The office also has a limited term, usually four or six years, thus promising mature but still younger and more humble electors who recognize they do not hold exalted power for life. But best of all, in one move all the countries in the world with resident Catholic bishops would be represented in electing the next pope. The heads of Vatican curia offices, cardinals or not, could be ex officio included. The new pope would have to be a bishop but need not be a cardinal.

Benedict XVI should not reform the church’s electoral system by a pontifical fiat. Catholics have had many of those, and some have not been universally accepted. It would be a long overdue recourse to the collegiality endorsed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), namely, that the College of Bishops (not the College of Cardinals) has supreme power together with and under the pope in governing the church and making necessary changes. The present pope could convoke an ecumenical council, like Vatican II, but it might be more practical to convoke a synod to which the heads of all the world’s bishops’ conferences would be invited to design a better system of papal elections.

Many Catholics would find the proposed solution too conservative. Why, they would say, are the clergy and lay men and women excluded? A valid question, but premature for a church that changes ever so slowly.

If the system were changed, the cardinals need not donate their regalia to the Salvation Army. Let the red hat still be bestowed on those appointed church leaders of such metropolises as New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro. But let the power of the electors of the next pope come not from the color of their robes but from the choice of their peers.

Frank Maurovich is the editor of Maryknoll magazine.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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