This is a topic that I have been pondering ever since Pope Benedict announced his resignation. The media, being ever so wise, has insisted that the Holy Father refrain from doing anything that could remotely be considered as giving a particular candidate the papal nod. It strike me, though, that this deserves a great deal more consideration. It is not entirely obvious to me that it would be “wrong” for the current Holy Father to attempt to influence the election. In order to understand this, though, it is helpful to make several distinctions.
First, Church law is quite clear that the Pope has the power to determine how his successor is elected. Virtually every pontiff in recent memory has modified the process to greater or lesser degrees. Universi Dominici gregis (John Paul II) reinforces the age old teaching in no uncertain terms: “It is in fact an indisputable principle that the Roman Pontiff has the right to define and adapt to changing times the manner of designating the person called to assume the Petrine succession in the Roman See. This regards, first of all, the body entrusted with providing for the election of the Roman Pontiff.” In other words, the Pope can set rules even to the extent of who gets to cast a vote. That being said, the role currently belongs (and has belonged for quite some time) to the College of Cardinals: “Confirming therefore the norm of the current Code of Canon Law (cf. Canon 349), which reflects the millennial practice of the Church, I once more affirm that the College of electors of the Supreme Pontiff is composed solely of the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church” (UDG). Yet this doesn’t change the fact that it is always subject to change. Regarding the conclave itself, John Paul II reiterated that it not of itself necessary: “[T]heologians and canonists of all times agree that this institution is not of its nature necessary for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff” (UDG). He then confirms his desire to see it continue: “I confirm by this Constitution that the Conclave is to continue in its essential structure.” So once more we see that the conclave is something that could be changed or even eliminated if any sitting pontiff so desired.
The fact is simple: the Pope can lawfully determine who is to vote for his successor and he can lawfully determine the manner in which such an election is to take place. While I am no canon lawyer, it seems within the bounds of the Petrine Office (with appropriate modifications of canon and special law) that the Holy Father could even do something absurd, perhaps saying: “I hereby declare that the election of the Holy Father in the case of a vacant See be entrusted to Cardinal Burke and Cardinal Canizares. They alone, by majority vote, will determine the successor of St. Peter.” Of course, such a specific naming would be imprudent, for if the individuals named were to pass away before the vacancy and the special law were not modified, the Church would find herself in a real pickle. But it does demonstrate the the Holy Father is given a great amount of latitude in influencing who will succeed him.
It is not even clear whether an election proper is necessary for valid succession. It seems that the Pope in theory could simply name his successor (again with the proper changes in canon and special law, all within his powers as a reigning pontiff).
Of course, I am not suggesting that these sorts of thing would be prudent by any means. Numerous problems could arise from such specifics, both practical and political. But it does make the point that the Holy Father most certainly has the right to influence an election.
Next, we should note that even under current law, the Holy Father does influence the election. For instance, John Paul II changed the “80 years old” cutoff date from the time of the conclave to the time of vacancy. This means that there is at least one cardinal (Cardinal Kasper) who will participate in the conclave and yet would not have under the rules of Paul VI. When the make up of the body of electors is changed, the election has been influenced. Pope Benedict reinstated the long tradition of a necessary two-thirds vote to decide a runoff election in the case of serious deadlock, whereas under John Paul II’s rule a simple majority would have been sufficient. This most certainly can influence the election, and if it indeed progresses to the point of a runoff, it likely will influence the election.
Let us also not forget the obvious point that the voters are appointed by the Pope himself. Benedict has already appointed over half of the cardinal electors, and every cardinal elector has been appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II. In the appointing of the college, the Pope clearly influences the election.
Finally, though perhaps more subtlety, there is the fact that Pope Benedict has resigned office, and in doing so he has necessarily placed the election of the next pontiff during a time when the former pontiff is still alive. It is naive to think that this will not enter the minds of the cardinals. Pope Benedict will influence this election and will do so without having to speak a word to anyone.
Of course the media, and others who are terrified of a new pope who is in continuity with the current Holy Father, recognizes these influences. Some have even accused the pope of deliberately trying the extend his pontificate in the act of resigning. Outside of the obvious influences, the claim is, “Once the rules are set and the players are named, the Pope should simply stay out of it.” People would throw an absolute fit if the Pope were to say, “I really think y’all [can you say y’all with a German accent?] should look at that Burke guy, or maybe the cardinal from Sri Lanka.” I can hear it now, “How could he! This is so irresponsible. The decision should be left with the cardinals, and the pope-emeritus should not try to meddle with it.” And yet I don’t think it is that simple.
First, in the secular world this happens all the time. Sitting presidents and former presidents often endorse replacement candidates, both in primaries and general elections. (How I wish President Obama would have endorsed a replacement candidate.) It is such a normal part of politics that one never hears cries of “tampering” or “meddling,” even from within the political parties during the primaries. In fact, the media waits with baited breath to hear who a particular political figure will endorse.
Why is it different for the Pope? Why would it be so tragic if Benedict were to endorse a particular cardinal? It certainly wouldn’t invalidate the election. While he is pope, he certainly has the right to direct the future of the Church, and as we have seen he has the explicit right to decide how the next pope is named. The media’s notion that the pope has no right to influence the next pontificate is both a double standard that they don’t apply to any other election and, quite frankly, is an absurd misunderstanding of the role of the sitting pontiff. Of course the pope has the “right” to do so. In fact, it is an explicit right granted to him by Church law. (By the way, I have a feeling that if the Pope were to endorse a Cardinal Mahony or a Cardinal Danneels, the American media would miraculously lose their objection to meddling and applaud the pope for his courage. The media objects to the pope’s influence only because they know what that influence means.)
But shouldn’t the election of the Pope be the result of listening to the Holy Spirit? The answer is emphatically “yes,” but it also requires an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works. More often than not, the Spirit works through the thoughts and actions of men. This is why it is no contradiction to say that the Holy Spirit works through the conclave process even though it involves fallible men casting votes. (Let us not forget, however, that the Spirit can only work if the cardinals themselves are open. This is precisely why we pray for the cardinals. There is a guarantee that the Holy Spirit will speak, but there is no guarantee that the Cardinals will listen.) Who is to say that the Spirit, who is quite capable of working through a body of electors, is not also capable of working through a current pontiff? Perhaps the Spirit wants to work through a current pope specifically endorsing a candidate, or dare I say it, even naming a candidate and getting rid of the entire conclave process. As absurd as it sounds, this is exactly why “it is in fact an indisputable principle that the Roman Pontiff has the right to define and adapt to changing times the manner of designating the person called to assume the Petrine succession in the Roman See.”