A Conclave With NO Cardinal Bishops Will Be ‘A First’ BUT ‘No Big Deal’.

Anura Guruge, June 8, 2013.

by Anura Guruge

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Click to ENLARGE. From my now badly lapsed (but once magic) Cardinals Excel spreadsheet. But these entries hadn’t changed since 2008 – 2010 and I was able to quickly cobble-up this view — for this post. There are times, just before I drift off to sleep (around 2 am), when I think: “I really should invest a couple of days into updating that Spreadsheet BECAUSE it can show so much”.

I had a (nice) e-mail about “this” from a reader yesterday. He was concerned as to what would happen when (my MAN), (still) My Lord Tarcisio Bertone (of the multimillion dollar penthouse) turns 80 on December 2, 2014 and thus ceases to be an elector.

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Though it will be a FIRST there is nothing in Canon Law, papal edicts, Vatican lore or College of Cardinals’ tradition that says that there has to be Cardinal Bishops at a conclave to make it legit.

As far as I can see we have NEVER had a conclave without cardinal bishops. But that doesn’t mean that a conclave couldn’t happen if all the cardinal bishops were ineligible (or incapable) of attending. I started with the 9 cardinal conclave that I talk about in my latest pope book: “Popes: 101 Facts & Trivia“. There were two cardinal bishops at that conclave. Prior to the 80-year cut-off kicking-in in 1971 there was no impediments to Cardinal Bishops participating in conclaves (other than political coercion). With up to 6 cardinal bishops present, at any one time, at least one of two always made it to a conclave. Cardinal Bishop vacancies, prior to 1961 when John XXIII (#262) changed the rules, didn’t last for long because jus optionis permitted rules permitted the senior most cardinal to make a grab for it. So cardinal bishops being unable to attend conclaves ONLY became an issue post 1971 — and so far we have always managed to have some representation.

That is one of the lesser appreciated beauties of the College of Cardinals. The three hierarchical orders, cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinals deacons, are PURELY ceremonial — and, yes, conclaves are when the ceremonies hit a crescendo. But we also have the sacrosanct ‘Order of Precedence’ when it comes to the College. And that is the key. No bishops … let the precedence play its role.

So was the uninitiated here is the issue. You can only have six (6) suburbicarian Cardinal Bishops — because we only have seven (7) suburbicarian (i.e., suburbs surrounding Rome) titles, and one of those, Ostia, is always given to the Dean in ADDITION to his other suburbicarian see title. While popes can easily create new Roman titles (for cardinal priests) and ‘deaconries’ (for cardinal deacons) they can’t really, without appearing to be mighty presumptuous, create NEW suburbicarian sees. The 7 we have date back to 769 CE. So there is a BIT of history here. Creating a new suburbicarian see would be a BIG deal — kind of like reenacting the Resurrection. Unlikely that even Francis would want to mess with that.

Yes, of course, one of these elderly cardinals might decide that it really was time for them to “go to their father’s house” — which is the terminology they use. Plus there is, always, what I call ‘Option B’, though the Vatican, ‘of late’, appears to be VERY skittish about opting for this option — something that they routinely resorted to during the Middle Ages.

No big deal. I, as ever, anticipating these eventualities covered it in my “Last 10 Conclaves” book, last year.

Click to ENLARGE. Use link above to order the book. Get the "Popes: 101 Facts & Trivia" while you are at it.

Click to ENLARGE. Use link above to order the book. Get the “Popes: 101 Facts & Trivia” while you are at it.