A friend (& collaborator), a devout, lifelong Catholic asked me to address this.
So, I am.
One could assume that God will NOT allow this to happen.
If so this is all academic.
There are essentially 4 scenarios:
- Francis, prior to anything going awry, issues an edit that the conclave can be delayed.
Highly, highly UNLIKELY. Popes hate having the papacy vacant — on the valid premise that ‘when the cat is away the mice will play‘.
- Francis, prior to anything going awry, issues an edit permitting secure, remote voting.
Unlikely, and the Vatican will struggle trying to implement, in time, a proven, secure methodology to permit totally untraceable vote casting.
- Cardinal electors already in Rome and those able to travel will hold a conclave and ‘openly’ elect an ELDERLY caretaker pope with a tacit understanding that he will resign (per Benedict XVI) in June 2021.
- Cardinal electors already in Rome and those able to travel will hold a conclave and elect a new pope — with no caveats.
The issue, of course, is the travel restrictions.
Italian quarantine rules per se will NOT apply since the Vatican is its own independent sovereign state.
There is NO airport at the Vatican, but there is a helipad. So, cardinal electors could be choppered in from a nearby country that permits air travel — e.g., Croatia.
As I have repeatedly pointed out in my various ‘conclave’ books there is NO minimum quorum for a conclave. NONE. But, there is the sacrosanct two-thirds majority requirement. So, just 3 electors will suffice. It would not be difficult to muster 40 cardinal electors in/around Rome — at any given time.
Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958 by 51 electors. So, you don’t need 100+ electors to elect a good pope!
The current Dean, 85-year old Giovanni Battista Re would make a good caretaker pope. I think most electors will agree that he is trustworthy. Angelo Scola, 78, might be a great compromise — a cross between a caretaker and ‘normal’.
So, those, per I, are the only 4 meaningful and relevant scenarios.