sede vacante

Well, there is no sede vacante yet and will not be until the pope’s abdication takes effect on 28 February. John-Paul II issued the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis which among other things dropped the traditional requirement for a 2/3+1 majority. Benedict XVI amended that constitution to restore the 2/3 rule but restrict the election to the 2 leading candidates once certain conditions are met. They are the same conditions as allowed an election by absolute majority under John-Paul’s rules. Many people argue that Cardinal Ratzinger would not have been elected without the lower majority established by Universi Dominici Gregis.


All cardinals except those over the age of 80 can vote. In theory any male Catholic is eligible. It has been some time since a non-cardinal was elected.


The media consensus seems to be that Cardinal Turkson of Ghana is the most likely candidate among the papabili but a more ancient consensus is that whoever enters the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal. There is an equally ancient consensus that fat popes are always succeeded by thin popes. Wojtyla and Ratzinger were the first time in many conclaves that 2 popes in succession came from the same faction among the cardinals.

54 thoughts on “sede vacante

  1. Hmm, 1,040,000 results but give the Google gophers time…

    Note that super-majority thresholds for election are actually rare for governmental positions, and usually watered down by a fallback provision where a simple majoriy suffices after a specified number of days and ballots have gone by (eg, Italy and ISTR Third and Fourth Republic France had similar rules).

    The Democrats used to have an absolute two-thirds threshold to nominate a presidential candidate, but changed it to 50% + 1 in 1936.

    The proposal for an Australian Republic, defeated by referendum in 1999 would have required a two-thirds majority to elect a President. (Voters thought that still gave too much power to the Prime Minister to impose his or her preferred nominee. We are thus left with the status quo under which the PrM can appoint whomever he or she wants after phoning the Queen to get the nomination rubber-stamped.)

    Some private bodies do have absolute two-thirds majorities: eg, one or another of the US Protestant denominations (Disciples of Christ, perhaps) a few years ago, I saw in the news, had to repeatedly re-ballot because its national conference couldn’t elect a president by the required 65% of delegates. ALP branches in some States require a 2/3 or 3/4 majority of State Conference to elect members of the disputes committee. The Univ of Queensland student union used to require (and still does) a two-thirds simple majority of the Council to approve the Secretary’s nomination of an Electoral Officer.

    IIGTR, Italy pre-1994 required 65% to elect a Senator for a single-member district, but if no candidate polled that high, the seat was not left vacant but instead added to those filled from the party lists.

    Amateur political commentators sometimes throw around suggestions like “Judges of the Highest Court should not be appointed by the head of government, but instead elected by a 75% majority of the legislature”, which suggests a certain naivety.

    My own compromise suggestion is to combine super-majorities with qualified term limits. If no candidate has two-thirds after a specified number of days of balloting, a simple majority can elect, but any candidate who has previously held the office is disqualified. In other words, former Presidents/ Speakers/ Electoral Officers/ Other Quasi-Constitutional or Electoral Umpires are barred from re-election if they seriously anger more than 25% of their electorate. A minority can’t prevent a position being filled or block decisions being taken, but it can take its revenge on an incumbent whom, they feel, has been biased against them.

  2. Err, either “2/3…. 33.4%” or “3/4… 25%” but either way you get my drift. A large minority has the right of reprisal if they think the umpire has got it in for them. But they have to “maintain their rage” (so to speak) until the umpire next faces re-election. US experience with GOP and Dems alternating in vowing to repeal the filibuster the second they next win a Senate majority suggests that having time to cool off filters out the passing dummy-spits from those who are seriously grieved.

  3. Benedict XVI was not a particularly good legislature*, although he was better than his predecessor.

    The palace gave the Queensland government very clear advice about the re-nomination of Sir Colin Hannah (who had publicly called for the election of a federal coalition government) and ultimately the nomination was withdrawn. I seriously doubt the palace would simply agree to whoever the prime minister fancied.

    *One cannot really say ‘legislator’ because that implies a collective body rather than an individual with sole legislative power.

  4. “… And all three theorists [Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau] were enthralled by the Biblical figure of the Legislator. To create the State, to breathe life into it, and to prescribe its laws, a Legislator was indispensable. The spectre of Moses haunts their pages. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, he is the most persuasive model in European political theory.”

    – Norman Jacobson, Pride and Solace: The Functions and Limits of Political Theory (U Cal Press, 1986), pp xi-xii.

    The 266th pope will have to be “more a Prime Minister than a Governor-General”.

    – Cardinal George Pell, quoted in Tess Livingstone, “Vatican no place for a pious fool”, The Australian (22 February 2013), p 16.

    “… How could Pell come from a long-odds outsider to the papacy? I [would] put the chance at about 5 per cent, perhaps a bit less. But a 5 per cent chance of becoming Pope is an enormous chance. For a possible model, look not to the election of Benedict but back before that to the election of John Paul II, who did not start as a serious contender. The conclave became deadlocked between supporters of the conservative Giuseppe Siri and the liberal Giovanni Benelli. Finally, a cardinal suggested the Pole Karol Wojtyla, who became John Paul II, as a bridge candidate. The rest, as they say, is history…”

    – Greg Sheridan, a href=”″>”Why George Pell is a 20-to-1 deserved favourite,” The Australian (22 February 2013).

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