Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why Conclaves need to be held in secret

A bird rests over the Sistine Chapel's chimney pipe today
at approximately 11:40 AM US EDT.

Brethren, Peace and Good be with all of you.

If you are watching the news, the talking heads mention the words “secret” or “secretive” every other sentence when describing the Conclave. Other “opinion-makers” decry or condemn this secrecy or “lack of transparency” as unnecessary, antiquarian, or worse: “undemocratic”. Let me tell you why this is so.

When the age of persecution of the Church came to an end and Rome fell to the barbarians, Christian fervor cooled. Direct election of the Bishop of Rome by the people and clergy of the city became instances of mob rule. The first restriction came in place at that time: the Bishop of Rome was to be elected by the clergy of Rome – the priests, the deacons, and the bishops of surrounding, “suburban” dioceses. In turn, many of these became pawn for the intrigues, first of Roman noble families, then of rulers and families of Italian city-states, then the Byzantine and the Holy Roman Empire, and then of the emerging nation-states of France, Spain, England, etc. Everyone and their mother – sometimes, *literally* someone’s mother – wanted to influence the papal election.

The last time a nation-state exercised a veto on a papal election was in 1903, when Polish Cardinal Jan Puzyna de Kosielsko from Kraków in the name of Emperor Franz Joseph (1848–1916) of Austria-Hungary objected to the election of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla. The conclave elected instead Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, who became Pope St. Pius X. One of his first acts as a Pope was to ditch all such vetoes and privileges granted to Catholic monarchs in the past. No outside player has been allowed to influence a papal election ever since.

The College of Cardinals represents the evolution of the synodal assembly that once elected the Bishop of Rome. In fact, each Cardinal receives in his title – as Cardinal “bishop, priest, or deacon” – a titular see, parish, or deaconry once or currently active in the Roman ecclesiastical province. However, the need for secrecy evolved as a need to resist outside interference in what remains essentially a spiritual, a theological event: the election of Peter’s successor who will shepherd and govern the Church of Christ.

Secrecy is necessary to protect the theological and canonical election of the Bishop of Rome. Skeptical commentators and pressure groups have no standing to influence the papal electors or the election itself, no matter how righteous a cause or how unworthy a cardinal is portrayed to be. A Conclave is an instrument for God’s action, not man’s. Objectors may dislike this simple reality, but that’s tough. Get over it.

Let us continue to pray for the cardinals as they identify God’s choice to be the next supreme shepherd of his Church.