The Other Motu Proprio

In June Pope Benedict issued a Motu Proprio that restored the ancient rule for papal elections.

Prior to the last conclave John Paul II had modified the long-standing tradition of a two-thirds requirement to elect a Pope. He stipulated that, though this would hold true for the first thirty-four ballots, thereafter the Cardinals would be free to decide whether a simple majority would suffice for election.

Now Benedict has reversed that decision and restored the ancient tradition.

Sandro Magister provides an article by the Jesuit canonist, Ladislas Orsy, formerly of the Gregorian University in Rome (where I happily learned whatever Canon Law I know from him), now at Georgetown.

Orsy writes:

This [John Paul's new procedure] was an innovation, and a breach with an ancient tradition; no onecould deny it. No wonder that it caused dissatisfaction among competentpersons. Benedict XVI in his "motu proprio" refers to them: he statesthat "numerous petitions of eminent authority" reached the thenreigning pope asking him to undo what he did.

Yet, the significance of the new order was not obvious for thepublic at large; the press usually avid for sensation, hardly mentionedit. After all, in recent elections, just how many times has theconclave come to an impasse? It seemed that John Paul did no more thanto provide for an unlikely event; otherwise the change had nosignificance.

The purpose of this article is to show that the change introducedby John Paul was a momentous deed of his pontificate and that it hadthe potential to set the church in a new (and perhaps perilous) course.

Benedict XVI restored the even flow of history. To understand all that, let us recall the tradition.

Orsy explains with his accustomed clarity both the tradition and the threat that John Paul's innovation posed. And then engages in a fascinating "thought experiment." What if John Paul's rules had been in effect at the Conclave of 1978 -- the one that elected him Pope.

For the possible outcome, read further.

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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