Shaking up the Conclave

Madison. Hamilton. Adams. Dennis the Constitutional Peasant. The list of men who have contributed to our understanding of the ideal form of government is as long as it is distinguished. And, as the great sage of the muck has noted, “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

Now far be it from me to compare the esteemed College of Cardinals to some “watery tart,” but we should recognize that just as Dennis did not get to vote for his king, neither do we as Catholics get a vote for our pope. This isn’t an issue I’ve given much thought to in the past, but during this historic interregnum I’m not the only one considering why 115 old men should get to decide who will be the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

As a slightly less brilliant thinker than Dennis once similarly declared, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Most of the world’s Catholics not only look very different than the group of men gathering this month in the Sistine Chapel, they also live very different lives with dramatically different experiences and worldviews. None of us are even consulted, much less give our consent, as to who should be the next supreme pontiff.

Of course there are some obvious differences. We are electing a pope, not a president, for one thing. Still, why should 25% of the votes go to the small country of Italy and less than 10% go to the entire continent of Africa, especially when the Church in Italy is in decline and in Africa it is growing by the day?

More importantly, why should the franchise be limited to a small select group of bishops? Why not appoint a layman, perhaps a distinguished theologian or leader of a lay ecclesiastical movement, as a cardinal elector? The Knights of Columbus has over 1.8 million members, and the Community of Sant’Egidio has members in 70 countries. Leaders of these or similar worldwide associations of the faithful would make excellent electors.

Why not include, or perhaps even set aside 50% of the seats for, women? The Boston Globe recently ran an article describing how our nation and the Church have depended on the energy and expertise of nuns. Should they not also get a say in who the next pope will be?

The heads of the largest religious orders, or various patriarchs, or others, would seem to be a natural choices as ex officio members. Once a month or so I meet with a former Superior General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a very unassuming man who now serves in the campus ministry office of a small college. I am certain he would bring a very different perspective than the small number of bishops who will be casting ballots.

Taking it a step further, we could make the College of Cardinals a bit more like the Electoral College. That is to say, each nation or continent could select its own cardinals, keeping the number proportional to the number of Catholics in their borders. I wouldn’t want to see a plebiscite for the position (“And remember, when the plate comes around for the second collection, be sure you toss in your ballot for Cardinal.”), but I think that is something each bishops’ conference could easily handle. Or, to move it in another direction, the college could select their own members. There’s no reason that the bishop of Rome has to be the only appointing authority.

I’m not sure what the ideal method to elect a pope is, and I don’t want to return to a point where there are outside political influences or rival antipopes, and I certainly don’t want to turn the election of a pope into the circus that is the US political system. Clearly there are a lot of considerations that must be factored in to any reforms of the college.

On the other hand, there are many constituencies who have a huge stake in who sits in the chair of Peter, but only one gets a vote. The current system has served us well for many years; the time has come to unhinge the conclave and open the door a little bit wider.