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VATICAN LETTER Nov-5-2004 (970 words) With photo. xxxi

Conclave: Pope's 'electoral college' has moral values, no exit polls

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Non-Americans at the Vatican are often perplexed by the U.S. electoral system, wondering how, for example, a nationwide presidential choice can come down to 130,000 votes in a single state.

Sometime in the coming years, the Vatican will host its own unique form of election called a conclave, and the shoe will be on the other foot: Church leaders will be called on to explain one of the oldest and most arcane systems of voting in the world.

Papal conclaves are not like the popular votes of democratic countries. The approximately 120 electors are all cardinals, all male and all sworn to secrecy about the proceedings, which take place behind a locked door.

When a new pope is finally chosen, the larger church membership of more than 1 billion Catholics often has no idea how many votes he received or who the other strong candidates were.

The conclave is not an expression of representative democracy, as Vatican officials are fond of pointing out, but recent popes have made an effort to promote more geographical balance by naming cardinals from Third World countries.

And increasingly cardinal-electors from around the world are being watched by the media as carefully as swing-state voters in the United States.

"These cardinals used to be fairly unknown to the world, because for centuries most of them resided in Rome. Now there is a great amount of attention given to them, and the cardinals themselves are traveling and making global connections," said Msgr. Charles Burns, a Scottish historian and retired official of the Vatican Archives.

One of the unique aspects of a papal conclave is that, to a very large degree, it can be shaped by a sitting pope.

Pope John Paul II, for example, has named all but three of the 122 cardinals who would elect his successor if a conclave were held today. He has also revised the rules of the conclave, introducing a few substantial changes. One modification allows the cardinals to move more easily to a simple majority vote from the standard two-thirds plus one needed to elect a pontiff.

More than any of his predecessors, Pope John Paul has tried to distribute cardinal appointments to every area of the globe. Places like Ghana and Sudan, where Catholics a generation ago might never have dreamed of having a cardinal, now have a local participant in the next conclave.

That does not translate into a vote for the Catholics of each country, of course.

"It doesn't work that way," said Msgr. Burns.

"Each cardinal does bring the concerns of his church community to a conclave. But the cardinals do not represent limited groups of Catholics -- they come together in a sense of communion, representing the universal church," he said.

Even with the geographically wide-ranging appointments of recent years, the College of Cardinals remains heavily weighted toward Europe, which today has 61 voting-age cardinals, or 50 percent of the total. Italy alone has 21 cardinal-electors, or more than 17 percent.

If they were apportioned by Catholic population, Europe would have only 32 cardinal-electors and Italy would have six.

On the other hand, Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic population, currently has only four voting-age cardinals. A per-Catholic distribution would give Brazil 17 cardinal-electors.

The United States has 11 cardinal-electors at present, 9 percent of the total, whereas U.S. Catholics make up about 6 percent of the total Catholic population in the world.

The geographical breakdown of the cardinal-electors today is: Western Europe, 39 percent; Latin America, 18 percent; United States and Canada, 11 percent; Eastern Europe, 11 percent; Africa, 10 percent; Asia, 9 percent; and Oceania, 2 percent.

The cardinals fall off the conclave voting rolls when they reach age 80, which keeps the average age of the cardinal-electors at a relatively youthful 71 and a half. Of the 122 potential voters today, nearly one-fourth are retired or active officials of the Roman Curia, and most of the rest are residential archbishops around the world.

Strangely, there are no native-born Romans among voting-age cardinals today -- a fact that sometimes scandalizes Catholics in Rome.

When cardinals are summoned to Rome for a conclave, there is not much time for sorting out candidates. In modern times, the whole process of papal death to election of a new pope typically takes less than a month. The rules call for consultative discussions before the start of a conclave, but they specifically ban any type of vote-swapping agreements.

"There's not really lobbying -- or if there is, it's pretty subtle," said Msgr. Burns.

In this election, "moral values" are assumed to be a shared priority among all the voters. But there are no exit polls, because the cardinals are barred from talking about the details of the conclave proceedings.

The outside world rarely intrudes upon a conclave's deliberations, but there are exceptions.

In the 13th century, cardinals holed up in the papal palace of Viterbo outside Rome for 33 months without electing a pope, taxing the local supply of food and wine. Asked by local residents why it was taking so long, the cardinals said they were waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The residents then removed the roof from the building, saying it would make it easier for the Holy Spirit to come down. Open to the elements, the cardinals quickly chose a pope.

At the end of a conclave, one man walks out and faces the world as pope. Unlike the end of political elections, there are no obvious losers, and the start of a pontificate usually represents a moment of unity and hope for the church.

"If there has been a close election or acrimonious divisions on the inside, we are spared the details," said Msgr. Burns.


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