Black smoke and the Sistine Chapel

Black smoke rising from the Cistine Chapel means they have not chosen a succeeding pontiff, and has led to much speculation and debate in major media. Why the black smoke? Why do the delegates not choose a representitive to announce they have not come to a decision? I’m conjecturing that it is tradition that tolerates no deviation in which the participants are somehow bound to the process until conclusion. I guess I’m just tired of the network’s cameras trained on an exhaust outlet in the name of newsworthiness. What gives?

Here you go. I hope this helps explain things. If you click on the link, there is much more information:

From Wikipedia-

If the first election held in any given morning or afternoon does not result in an election, the cardinals proceed to the next vote immediately; the papers from both ballots are burnt together at the end of the second vote. The colour of the smoke signals the results to the people assembled in St Peter’s Square. Dark smoke signals that the ballot did not result in an election, while white smoke signals that a new Pope was chosen. Originally, damp straw was added to the fire to create dark smoke; since 1958 chemicals have been used. In addition, bells ring after a successful election in case the white smoke is not unambiguously white.

Technically, the cardinals aren’t supposed to leave the conclave until a new pope has been chosen, which limits their ability to communicate with the outside world. You can’t maintain total secrecy while having someone slipping in and out to make announcements.

Personally, I would just say “No news is no news” and tell people to hold their horses until they hear the bells and see the guy in the robe saying Habemus papam, but this is the Catholic Church we’re talking about. There are rules.

This follows with my assumption that they are duty-bound to the event until conclusion. But with the “smoke signals” they are really trying to exposit the status of the process and not attempting to maintain secrecy. So, again, why the smoke signals and not a spokesperson? Tradition?

I would think that it would be because the spokesperson might somehow influence the conclave with their expressions as they recieved the news, or that they might overhear a bit of debate etc. They don’t want the cardinals to have ANY contact with the outside world until they have elected a new Pope. They are effectively “sequestered”. The isolation used to be even stricter before Pope John Paul II re-wrote some of the rules concerning Papal elections IIRC.

And to spell out the other side of that, if one of the conclave cardinals functioned as spokesperson, they might be influenced by the crowd (or one person in the crowd,) that they came out to make an announcement to.

It’s a traditional method of making the ‘data channel’ between the conclave and the outside world as narrow as possible while still permitting that one function, I suppose. (Can you tell I’m a computer geek?) At any moment, I suppose, one of three possible signals can be going out from the conclave to the world… no smoke, black smoke, or white smoke. (One and a half bits or so?) Theoretically, not a single bit of information from the world goes into the conclave once the cardinals have arrived.


Really, they could accomplish as much by passing a slip of paper under the door. But the smoke signals are pretty cool.

I’d wager they didn’t want there to be any temptation, or chance for the electors to “let slip” which way they might be leaning, so that is why they used the smoke signals, and today it’s part of the tradition so get’s continued.

Yeah, but they also want to destroy all the failed ballots in order to maintain secrecy after the conclave. (You don’t want people finding old ballots and realizing that Cardinal so-and-so came in second place on day three.) So the smoke signal accomplishes both goals.

There are two separate issues involved.

Why have smoke at all? Burning the ballot papers is a pretty obvious precaution against fraud and that tradition does seem to be genuinely ancient. It was then only a small step for those on the outside to work out that if there was smoke, a vote had taken place.

But the colour-coding is more recent. As is the way with such things, the myriad of recent press reports about how to hold a conclave have tended to give two different dates for its introduction, 1878 or 1903. But what they don’t do is explain why the tradition was introduced.

My hunch - and it is only a hunch - is that it had to do with the peculiar circumstances of those conclaves, the first two to be held following the 1870 annexation of Rome by the new kingdom of Italy. What tends to be forgotten is that between 1870 and the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the territories controlled by the papacy were even smaller than what is now the Vatican City. Under the 1871 Law of Papal Guarantees, Italy recognised little more than the Apostolic Palace itself (plus the Lateran) as papal territory. This was not just a theoretical restriction, as the Italian army occupied those parts of the Vatican claimed by the Italian government. Even control of St. Peter’s Basilica was disputed. In such circumstances, a signal that could be seen from outside begins to make sense.

If I’m not mistaken, the tradition of locking in the cardinals isn’t related to an issue of secrecy, but to the concern that the conclave would elect a pope quickly (rather than roaming around, hold banquets or diplomatic meetings, whatever…). Traditionnally, it’s mentionned they’ve been so sequestered since one particular election during the late middle-ages/ early renaissance when the cardinals couldn’t manage to elect a new pope for a long period of time and the people of Rome eventually decided to actually lock them in with minimal comfort (food, water) until they would elect one, which was done in quick order.

Except at one time the doors to the conclave were sealed inside and out by wax.

That was in reply to BobLibDem

Here’s hoping someday we’ll see a puff of pink smoke —


what happens if it’s not a Pope on the first vote, then the second one that morning results in a Pope. Do they do black for a minute or two, then change it to white?? I’m assuming they just go straight to white, but you really wouldn’t know that the first one resulted in a draw again.

I like the smoke signals, pretty cool. The best part is that the press **isn’t ** allowed in!!! yeahh!

But woudn’t that just be for the key hole? Most doors I’ve ever seen have at least 1/4" gap from floor to door, sealing such a gap with wax would be problematic.

I would imagine that votes aren’t held that closely together, and that the smoke from the first batch would at least be well spread out by the time the second vote is in.

It’s also a way to quickly tell the massive number of people milling around in the Square. You don’t have to open the doors, set up mikes or video screens or hush everybody up (not that they don’t have mikes and screens these days, but YKWIM). It’s actually very efficient, and also the white smoke tells everybody to get into place under the right window to meet and greet the new guy.

I don’t think it’s sealed like a jam jar. I assumed they meant a wax seal like the sort you used to get on letters.

I think what all the replies are missing is the that the white smoke black smoke tradition derives from the time when nobody was told anything at all. I imagine people stood around looking for any kind of signal.

They get burned together. In fact, one of the choices in a follow-up vote is “what I said last time”, which is identifiable by a unique scriptural passage on the back of each cardinal’s voting blanks. If they burned the first votes immediately, that wouldn’t work.

The paper itself burns white. If no decision has been reached they add straw to the fire which makes the smoke black. Nothing fancy about it like changing halfway through.

As to why they still use smoke signals: come on, this is the Catholic Church we’re talking about here. If they’ve done something one way for a couple hundred years they’ll damn well keep doing it that way. Yes, they could set up an LED next to the door or something, but they’ve got the smoke thing so why change it?