Picking Popes: A History of Electing the Catholic Church’s Leader

Kean University

Dr. Christopher M. Bellitto is Professor of History at Kean University in New Jersey, where he teaches courses in ancient and medieval history. A specialist in church history and reform, he is the author of ten books, including his latest: Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible. His current project is a history of humility as the lost virtue, supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Grant. Dr. Bellitto also serves as series Editor in Chief of Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition and Academic Editor at Large for Paulist Press. He is a former Fulbright Specialist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and was Visiting Scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary 2021-2022.


Why do the cardinals pick the popes—and how can some say this is a democratic action if only a bit more than 100 men vote for the world’s longest-surviving monarchy? When did the white smoke to announce an election come into play? How did the shady Renaissance Medicis get picked? This presentation explores the history of the conclaves–with plenty of anecdotes and analysis from a church historian who works with the media during papal transitions.

We begin with the earliest period of church history, when local leaders in Rome simply recognized the next obvious choice. Then we move into the early medieval centuries, when Rome’s powerful families scheme to get their relatives on the papal throne–whether they are worthy spiritually, or not. But in the high Middle Ages, starting in the 11th century, church leaders realize an independent process must be created. Over time, they put in the key rules: only cardinals can elect, and a two-thirds majority vote will do the trick–in a sealed room called the conclave. If the vote is supposed to be cloaked in secrecy, why do we know so much about what went on behind those locked doors?

Those rules stood essentially the same until the late 20th century. Then we’ll consider the changes that Popes John Paul II and then Benedict XVI made. And while we’re at it: we need to discuss how a papal resignation, such as that of Benedict XVI in 2013, impacts a conclave that in the past was triggered by a papal death.



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Lyn Rosen


This talk was so well done, so interesting! Presented in great style with a sense of humor. More, please!

7 months ago
Hector Diaz


So informative lecture. Loved the way professor narrated historical facts.

6 months ago
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