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.