Comparative Politics

Temporal Omnipotence, or How Even the Pope Can Strategically Call New Elections

Feb 11 '13

Wondering why we’ve just witnessed the first papal resignation in 600 years? The following guest post from political scientists Forrest Maltzman and Melissa Schwartzberg, the co-authors along with the late Lee Sigelman of “Vox Populi, Vox Dei, Vox Sagittae”, points to a potentially surprising observation: just like prime ministers in parliamentary systems of government, the Pope may have realized the value of timing elections strategically.


In 1996, Pope John Paul II changed the voting rules that had governed papal succession since 1179. After 33 or 34 rounds of voting, the vote threshold could be reduced from a two-thirds supermajority to a simple-majority vote. The cause of this decision remains mysterious. In joint work with our late colleague Lee Sigelman, however, we speculated that the involvement of Kenneth Arrow in the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences may have played a role in designing a rule that would break what we cheekily termed “encyclical majorities,” aimed at reducing the likelihood of deadlock.

Though the 1997 addition of Partha Dasgupta to the Pontifical Academy might have been expected to bolster support for conclave majoritarianism, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI reversed the rule change, returning it to the rule developed by the Third Lateran Council in 1179. A spokesman for Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 identified the reason for the change as the desire to “guarantee the widest possible consensus” for a new pope. Concerns about the threat dissension among fallible electors would pose to the attainment of consensus have long led to changes in voting rules. Canon 1, Licet de Evitanda, of the Third Lateran Council in 1179 cited as a cause for the reduction of the threshold from unanimity to two-thirds the problem of “some enemy sowing tares,” motivated by wickedness or ambition.

There has been some speculation that the motivation for Pope Benedict to reduce the threshold was concern that supporters of a candidate with a bare majority in early rounds would have no incentive to compromise or capitulate, leading inevitability to protracted conclaves and exacerbating what Lee termed the “fissiparous politics” of the Church.

It is surely possible that this is the case, though it is difficult to see how the challenge of attaining consensus, given the existence of disagreement, is more easily remedied by a rule that enables one-third plus one of the cardinals to veto an election than a rule enabling one-half to veto. It is possible that the higher vote threshold would encourage the cardinal electors to reach agreement rather than holdout, but it is equally likely that deadlock would persist. Once chosen, however – and voting in the conclave is famously secretive – it is true that the achievement of a supermajority vote might signal agreement to an extent that a bare majority would not, though a long conclave would, presumably, affect the strength of that signal.

We admit that we do not have a personal relationship with the Pope, his cardinals, or even a papal butler who is willing to share Vatican secrets. Nonetheless, a look at the distribution of recent appointments of cardinals from the perspective of a veto pivot is suggestive – and it is certain that a pope would have greater capacity to influence the choice of his successor under a two-thirds rule than a simple-majority rule, simply by virtue of the smaller number of votes necessary to veto.

In February 2012, Pope Benedict named 22 new cardinals, 18 of whom were eligible to vote. At the time, the appointments were considered noteworthy for the extent to which they moved away from the internationalist trend promoted by Pope John Paul II. The February appointments raised the proportion of current or former Vatican officials over the one-third threshold to 35% (44 of 125 electors). To the surprise of many Vatican-watchers, Benedict XVI then named six additional cardinals in a November consistory, doing so ostensibly to show that the “church is a church of all peoples, [and] speaks in all languages.” It had been nearly a century since two consistories for the elevations of cardinals had been held in a single calendar year, and was especially unusual given the large number of anticipated vacancies in 2013. On February 28, there will be 117 cardinal electors, 67 of which were appointed by Benedict XVI. Of the 117, 61 are Europeans, and 38 – almost precisely one-third – are current or former Vatican officials, members of the Roman curia. One former member of the Roman curia, Walter Kasper, will turn 80 on March 5, rendering him ineligible to participate on that date.

Is it possible that the timing of Benedict’s departure was affected by concerns about the distribution of votes were he to linger? Again, we do not have sufficient knowledge to make such a claim unequivocally, but it is surely possible that the choice of a successor  may have been a factor in his decision-making. And it is possible that either divine insight or strategic thinking may have led the Pope to believe in 2007 that changing the rules was crucial to ensure that the Roman Curia could still call the shots. Though we cannot be certain, let us be clear: we think Dasgupta is off the hook.