Eligibility for papacy: pope emeritus, women, laymen, etc.

Some questions that occur to me about who legally can be considered for the office of pope.

Pope Emeritus

Of course I’m certain Benedict XVI would not be in consideration for being re-elected as pope if Pope Francis were to pass away while Benedict is still alive. And even if people considered it, he wouldn’t accept it, because his whole reason for resigning in the first place was because he didn’t feel physically and mentally capable, any longer, of fulfilling the duties of the papacy.

But would he literally be eligible to be elected again?


I know that current church law provides that a pope must be elected from the College of Cardinals, and that women are forbidden from becoming cardinals. What would it take to change that law? Do you think Pope Francis has any inclination to consider such a change? Do you think it will ever happen? And if not, why not?


As I understand it, any circumcised, Catholic male is eligible to be elected pope after being ordained through the various intermediate steps. Does this mean that it’s literally possible for the conclave to choose someone who’s not ordained in the church at all, run them through all the ranks in rapid succession, and then bestow upon them the papacy? (As unlikely is that circumstance is).

Emergency Line of Succession, Or: Cardinals Broadcasting From an Undisclosed Location

Is it true that papal conclaves involve every cardinal under the age of 80 ordained by the Catholic Church? Because if so, it seems to me to be one hell of a tempting target for a terrorist bombing. What would happen in the event that every Catholic cardinal were to die at the same time? With no pope, no one could ordain new cardinals, and with no cardinals, they can’t convene to elect a pope.
(Some of these are probably stupid questions, for which I apologize: I’m not Catholic; I know precious little about hierarchy).

  1. Benedict is eligible to be elected again, but in practice, he wouldn’t be.

  2. A pope doesn’t have to be elected from the College of Cardinals, just by the College of Cardinals. However, the pope is a bishop, and therefore a priest, and therefore, has to be male, because under current Catholic law, women can’t be priests. In theory this could change, but pretty much the entire church leadership is opposed to it changing. Priests have been male for almost 2000 years and I don’t see a female priest happening

  3. The layman elected would have to be ordained a priest and then a bishop. This is one of those other things that could happen, but is unlikely. The last time it happened was with Benedict IX, who was also the only person to become pope more than once. This happened in 1032. (In the 9th and 10th century, the papacy was in trouble. It was pretty much under the control of the Counts of Tusculum, who basically used it to benefit themselves.

Bendedict XVI could be elected again as pope, because he remains eligible. Benedict IX served as pope three times.

I’ll field this one.

The papal conclave involves only those cardinals under the age of 80. There are currently 207 cardinals, but only 115 attended the conclave because 90 of them were over the age limit. (The remaining two, Cardinal Darmaatmadja and Cardinal O’Brien, declined to attend because of failing health and sex scandals respectively). So assuming that someone managed to bomb the Sistine Chapel during a conclave, which would be next to impossible considering the security measures the Swiss Guard put in place, there’d still be a sizable rump college remaining.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily true that “with no pope, noone could ordain new cardinals”. During a sede vacante, the College of Cardinals acts as a regency in the name of the deceased pope, and can theoretically, by a vote amongst themselves, exercise any of the powers that the pope would wield if he were alive. The College could therefore choose to promote a number of archbishops to the cardinalite in order to establish a quorum for a new conclave, or they could simply abolish the age limit (which was only established in 1970 anyway) and form a new conclave themselves.

I don’t think they have to be circumcised to be eligible do they? Or even for a Catholic man to become a priest?

It would have to be a pretty exceptional attack to take out every single cardinal at the same time, a nuke would do it but then if the Vatican is under nuclear attack then we probably have fairly major problems in a general sense!

And who/how would verification occur?

I’m guessing that that was a Freudian slip, and that ekedolphin meant to say “baptized”.

If circumcision is a requirement and the times were desperate, then I’d think that any Jewish male would be eligible. There’s precedent!


That’s not the case at all. They can’t do any real governing nor change the rules for voting. They can only deal with urgent matters of administration as they come up. And making bishops or cardinals is right out. From UNIVERSI DOMINICI GREGIS: ON THE VACANCY OF THE APOSTOLIC SEE AND THE ELECTION OF THE ROMAN PONTIFF





  1. During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, the College of Cardinals has no power or jurisdiction in matters which pertain to the Supreme Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office; such matters are to be reserved completely and exclusively to the future Pope. I therefore declare null and void any act of power or jurisdiction pertaining to the Roman Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office which the College of Cardinals might see fit to exercise, beyond the limits expressly permitted in this Constitution.

  2. During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, the government of the Church is entrusted to the College of Cardinals solely for the dispatch of ordinary business and of matters which cannot be postponed (cf. No. 6), and for the preparation of everything necessary for the election of the new Pope. This task must be carried out in the ways and within the limits set down by this Constitution: consequently, those matters are to be absolutely excluded which, whether by law or by practice, come under the power of the Roman Pontiff alone or concern the norms for the election of the new Pope laid down in the present Constitution.

  3. I further establish that the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church, much less allow any of these rights to lapse, either directly or indirectly, even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope.12 All the Cardinals are obliged to defend these rights.

  4. During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, laws issued by the Roman Pontiffs can in no way be corrected or modified, nor can anything be added or subtracted, nor a dispensation be given even from a part of them, especially with regard to the procedures governing the election of the Supreme Pontiff. Indeed, should anything be done or even attempted against this prescription, by my supreme authority I declare it null and void.

  5. Should doubts arise concerning the prescriptions contained in this Constitution, or concerning the manner of putting them into effect, I decree that all power of issuing a judgment in this regard belongs to the College of Cardinals, to which I grant the faculty of interpreting doubtful or controverted points. I also establish that should it be necessary to discuss these or other similar questions, except the act of election, it suffices that the majority of the Cardinals present should concur in the same opinion.

  6. In the same way, should there be a problem which, in the view of the majority of the assembled Cardinals, cannot be postponed until another time, the College of Cardinals may act according to the majority opinion.

I read somewhere that they do physically verify the candidate’s masculinity. Anyone know if that’s true?

False. Urban legend.

“Pope Joan” and the sede stercoraria. Toilet? Bidet? Birthing stool? Maybe, but not a nad-checker.

The circumcision thing sounds wrong. Yes, Jesus was probably circumcised, and he was so special that… well remember loaves and fishes? He had the ability to clone his foreskin.

In the scenario where the conclave was wiped out, I guess O’Brien gets to pick the next pope.

(IF Cardinal Darmaatmadja failed to show at this followup conclave due to illness; if he did show, then I guess they’d have to do rock-scissors-paper-lizard-Spock to decide who gets to be pope.)

Surely, in an all-voting-cardinals-wiped-out scenario, appointing new cardinals would fall under both the category of “matters which cannot be postponed” and “preparation of everything necessary for the election of the new Pope”.

A couple of previous threads (among others I think) that touched on some of these questions:

http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?p=16051268#post16051268 (starting at post #27).

I imagine that “the only living cardinals young enough to vote are a blind man and an indicted pedophile” would be a “problem which cannot be postponed until another time”.

It used to be true. The urban legend is that the reason the cardinals examined the genitals of the newly elected Pope was because “Pope Joan” had managed to slip through and they wanted to prevent a repetition; the Pope Joan story, alas, has no basis in fact. But medievals were very literal-minded: since the canon law said the requirements to be Pope were a believing Catholic, and a male, the cardinals made the newly elected Pope recite the Creed, and then looked at his genitals.

Urban legend again.

According to Huffington Post, Francis refused to be seated on the throne during his anointment, and nobody has questioned the legitimitude of his Popeliness.