Election of Pope

I’m not sure what kind of dope this is, but it ain’t “straight”.

Although the cardinals’ status as electors virtually assures that one of them will be elected, this is not dogmatic and has not always been true. In fact the Pope does not even have to be a priest. He doesn’t even have to be unmarried. The only requirements are:

  1. He must be male.
  2. He must be Roman Catholic.
  3. He must be an adult.
  4. He must be the choice of the assembled cardinals.
    From the Catholic Encyclopedia:


Though since Urban VI (1378-89) none but a cardinal has been elected pope, no law reserves to the cardinals alone this right. Strictly speaking, any male who has reached the use of reason can be chosen – not, however, a heretic, a schismatic, or a notorious simonist.


Alexander III decreed (cap. “Licet”, 6, “De elect.”) that “he, without any exception, is to be acknowledged as pontiff of the Universal Church who has been elected by two-thirds of the cardinals.” As late as 1378, Urban VI was chosen, though not a cardinal (consult, however, Constitut. 50 of Sixtus V “Postquam”, § 2). A layman may also be elected pope, as was Celestine V (1294). Even the election of a married man would not be invalid (c. “Qui uxorem”, 19, caus. 33, Q. 5). Of course, the election of a heretic, schismatic, or female would be null and void.

I’m guessing you didn’t read the forum descriptions.
Am I right?

I take it this is in ref to the Staff Report How does one become Pope?

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Board, tomasso. You might want to read the forum descriptions, and I am moving this to the “Comments on Staff Report” forum.

It is helpful to others if you provide a link to the Report you are commenting on. There’s hundreds of 'em in the Archives, and it helps keeps people on more or less the same page, gives 'em a clue what you’re talking about.

Note that SDStaff Ian was not writing about the technicalities of Catholic rules, but about the practical reality. Thus, he makes a comment like, it helps to be Italian.

Your cite says that “as late as 1378” a non-cardinal was chosen? So, you’re saying that it COULD happen, although it hasn’t in about 700 years? Gimme a break. Jesus could turn up in the middle of an election, too, and tell them that it was all a mistake.

His article starts out with:

“So, you wanna be Pope, huh? First, you have to be a priest. Duh, I know, but if I left it out, people would write in and tell me.”

Duh, well I don’t think so, since it is wrong. You don’t “have to be” a priest. In fact you don’t have to be a priest any more than you have to be Italian. It has just been the path of tradition.

Traditions change. There were no non-Italians for 400 years, and they weren’t likely to change now, were they? Well, it was still possible to elect a non-Italian, and by golly, they did so eventually. It took centuries, but it happened. Similarly, it is still possible to elect a married man or a monk - who knows what might happen eventually.

In fact, there are some other inaccuracies in his article as well, but they were not about matters of substance, so I didn’t enumerate them.

You’d think that you would be quite grateful that somebody gave you the straight dope when you made errors.

Based on your reaction, you can bet I won’t try to help you again.

Sorry if I came across as gruff. It’s been a difficult week. We’re certainly glad to have additional information, such as your comments on the technicalities of Church Law. I wanted to emphasize that Ian was writing about the practicalities, not the technicalities.

It’s not a question of right or wrong, nor of errors, it’s a question of perspective. The questionner was not asking “What are the technical rules” but “How does one…” To respond as you did, with a description of canon law, would be ignoring what’s happened for the last 700 years or longer.

If the question was, “How do I get to be President,” the response might equally well have been, you need to be a big shot in a political party, with lots of connections, a good presence on TV, and it helps to be a white male. True, the Constitution doesn’t mention those things, but that’s the practical reality. Saying that an ugly black female with no political connections and a speech impediment “could” be elected president is technically true but ignoring reality. The Straight Dope is about what is, not about what might be if the world were a better place.

I will ask Ian if he would like to add an appendix to this report to reflect the technicalities of Church Law that you have cited.

Again, the point is this.

The Straight Dope, as I see it is supposed to be a site for straightening out all the things that people commonly believe incorrectly.

Ian’s article IS the things that people commonly believe incorrectly.
A couple decades ago, people believed that one had to be Italian. If I had pointed out that it is not becessary to be Italian, you would have responded, “It’s not a question of right or wrong, nor of errors, it’s a question of perspective. The questioner was not asking “What are the technical rules” but “How does one…” To respond as you did, with a description of canon law, would be ignoring what’s happened for the last 500 years or longer.”

Of course, it was realistically all but impossible for a non-Italian to become Pope. just as it is realistically all but impossible for an ugly, black, female atheist to become President.

As I pointed out, the article has other factual errors in there as well. Again, he wrote the things that people believe, not what is actually correct.


The method for creating the different colored smoke is as follows: the ballots are burned after every round of voting. If a pope has been selected, nothing is added to the fire. If no selection has been made, straw straw is mixed with the ballots to create a special black sfumata, to show those waiting outside that there has been no selection.

II. SECRET BALLOT NOT REALLY SECRET - it is necessary to be able to determine how individuals voted.

The “secret ballot” is also not really secret at all, as we conceive of a secret ballot. That is another misconception. Each of the electors is given his own special stationary which contains a unique passage from scripture. The people in charge of the election know which passage goes with which Cardinal. In the case of a very close election, assuming the new Pope is one of the electors, the cardinals in charge may have to check the ballot of the Pope-elect, to make sure he did not vote for himself.
III. ACTUAL VOTE COUNT REQUIREMENT IS NOT A SIMPLE 2/3 - it is far more complicated than that.

The candidate is allowed to vote for himself, but the double-check and ballot accountability is required because of the actual vote count requirements.

The Straight Dope article says, “The new pontiff must be elected by a 2/3 majority of all ballots cast”. This is not correct. The successful candidate actually requires a two-thirds vote EXCLUSIVE OF his own.

If there were 90 electors, and the Pope-elect got exactly 60 ballots, they would have to check his vote. He would be elected in that case only if he did not vote for himself - so therefore they have to be able to determine how everyone voted. The election is sort of quasi-secret, I guess.

Similarly, if there were 91 electors, and one candidate got 60 ballots, that candidate could still be elected with less than 2/3 of the votes!!

(Provided that he voted for someone else, and therefore got 2/3 of the OTHER votes.)
On the other hand - if the electors give 61 out of 90 to a single candidate, there is no back-checking by individual elector, since it doesn’t matter who voted for whom. Even if the Pope-elect voted for himself, he still must have received 60 of the remaining 89 votes, so he’s in like Flynn, and the ballots remain secret.

I thought that either Paul VI or John Paul II, in revising the Conclave rules, changed them so that only a priest could be elected. I’d have to hunt for the document in question, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it said.

The document in question is Universi Dominici gregis

Canon #332 of the Code of Canon Law and the abovementioned document states “…If the person elected lacks episcopal character, however, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately.”

This means anyone eligible to be ordained a bishop (i.e., a rational, male Catholic [skip the comments on the existence of rational males]) can theoretically be Pope. All commentaries agree that the candidate does not have to be a priest first.

But since 1378, only Cardinals have made the cut, so, don’t hold your breath.


True. Although what happens within a conclave is secret, it is widely believed that after the death of Pius XII the 1958 conclave came close to electing Archbishop Montini of Milan as Pope, even thought he was not then a cardinal. In the end, the elected Cardinal Roncalli, who took the name John XXIII. Many attribute Montini’s election to the reluctance of the conclave to elect a non-Cardinal. (Montini subsequently did become Cardinal and in 1963 became Pope Paul VI).