I was casually watching RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) when il papa appeared on the screen and the news announcer reported something about papal elections and how “Benedetto sedicesimo” was revoking an action by his predecessor Giovanni Paolo. Say what?
Since I don't know Italian, I was not at all certain what had just been reported. The news segment had included file footage of the College of Cardinals filing into the conclave that elected Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, so I was confident that the topic really was papal elections. What could Benny Hex have done? Even before resorting to the Internet to check, I had a good idea.
The long history of the papacy includes many examples of highly questionable elections influenced by such external factors as threats of starvation, imposition of imperial vetoes, political pressure, and outright bribery. The elections of the past century have, by contrast, been relatively circumspect. Why would a change in election protocols rate a headline in the Italian news service? It could be because Benedict was curiously breaking ranks with his idolized predecessor. But why would he do such a thing?
Late in his long papacy, John Paul II promulgated new rules for the election of his successor. While popes are not permitted (not officially, anyway) to name the man they wish to take their place, JP II put in the fix for Ratzinger about as effectively as anyone could have. Although the rules have often been tweaked, the long-standing requirement for election by a two-thirds majority had been respected as almost sacrosanct. Sacrosanct, that is, until JP II gutted it.
John Paul decreed that a pope could be elected by a simple majority vote of the College of Cardinals, provided that the College had become deadlocked, with no candidate receiving a two-thirds vote. The following language comes from the English translation of Universi Dominici Gregis, the apostolic constitution on the election of the supreme pontiff, where paragraph 74 provides for a lengthy series of ballots according to the two-thirds majority rule. Then there's paragraph 75:
75. If the balloting does not result in an election, even after the provisions of No. 74 have been fulfilled, the Cardinal electors shall be invited by the Camerlengo to express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. The election will then proceed in accordance with what the absolute majority of the electors decides.This is the clause that Benedict XVI is revoking in favor of a return to the two-thirds requirement. It is, ironically, the paragraph that all but ensured Benedict's election as pope. Now that it has done its job, it can be discarded.
With his high profile and controversial reputation as John Paul's chief enforcer of doctrinal purity, Joseph Ratzinger was considered in most circles to be a long-shot prospect for the papacy. Vatican observers speculated that the cardinals would be likely to choose someone who could present to the world the kindly pastoral aspect that had characterized John Paul's youthful early years on the throne of St. Peter. After so long a papacy as John Paul's, the college would probably not again choose a man in his fifties. Someone in his sixties or early seventies seemed likely. Ratzinger, who turned 78 in 2005, was a senior member of the College of Cardinals whose appointment actually came from Pope Paul VI. All but two of his fellow cardinals were elevated to the college by John Paul II (and one of those, Cardinal Jaime Sin, was too ill to attend the conclave). But for John Paul's amendment of the election process, Ratzinger would have been on very few short lists of top candidates for the top job. Handicappers would have marked him down as eminently qualified, but too old, too forbidding, and too overtly doctrinaire.
But the election process was changed and Ratzinger entered the 2005 conclave a prohibitive favorite. He certainly had the allegiance of a solid bloc of his colleagues. The only question was whether the bloc would grow into a majority. Any doubt was soon eliminated as the first two ballots demonstrated that the German cardinal had more than enough votes to wait out the provisions of paragraph 74 and seize the prize under the provisions of 75. Rival candidacies collapsed in the face of Ratzinger's inevitability and he was soon consecrated as John Paul's successor. The cardinals are sworn to secrecy concerning all matters relating to the conclave and the election, but it quickly leaked out that Ratzinger achieved more than a two-thirds majority on the third ballot, which was held on the second day of the conclave.
R.I.P, paragraph 75. Your job is done and your chief beneficiary has laid you to rest.