Benedict XVI’s new Motu Proprio about the Conclave

The Holy Father – Pope Benedict XVI now gloriously reigning – released a Motu Proprio (in Latin) by which he empowers the Cardinal Electors to move forward the day of the beginning of the conclave.

The canonist Ed Peters has looked at the Motu Proprio Normas nunnullas.  My emphases:

In the wake of Benedict XVI’s startling resignation, a problem arose: the 17-day delay between the announcement and effective date of the resignation, followed by a minimum 15-day delay before the conclave could legally begin (per UDG 37), meant that the Church was to be, de facto, leaderless for over a month, with basically nothing to do but fret about being leaderless for over a month. As a way around this problem, some speculated (not unreasonably, but wrongly) that the cardinals charged with running skeleton operations during the sede vacante could, on their own authority, advance the start date of the conclave. This apparently simple idea, however, raised some very serious canonical and indeed ecclesiological issues.

Benedict’s motu proprio Normas nonnullas (22 feb 2012) solves the problem, as follows:

37 [Revised]. Praecipimus praeterea ut, ex quo Apostolica Sedes legitime vacat, antequam Conclave incohetur, mora sit interponenda quindecim solidorum dierum, facta tamen Cardinalium Collegio potestate Conclavis initium anticipandi, si constat omnes Cardinales electores adesse, vel etiam proferendi per aliquot dies, si graves obstant causae; tamen viginti diebus ad summum elapsis ab initio Sedis vacantis, cuncti Cardinales electores praesentes ad electionis negotium procedant.

Derogating from UDG 37, the pope has authorized an earlier start of the conclave if all the electors are present. Such a decision now falls squarely within the pontifical provisions for a conclave, and one may leave the choice of a start-date to the competent authority without further concern for the legality of the assembly.  [Therefore, it is more likely that there could be a new Pope before Easter and – importantly – there is no question now that the Conclave could have any stain of illegality were the date to be moved up.  The question is resolved.]

Time-permitting, I have a few more thoughts later.


Another aspect of Benedict’s motu proprio catches my eye, namely, its reiteration that no otherwise-eligible elector can, for any reason, be barred from participation in the conclave. Over the weekend I saw several chattering heads speculating about Cdl. Mahony arriving in Rome only to be politely shown the door. [They wouldn’t do that.] Nonsense. Mahony’s right to admittance is indisputable. As the pope will not disbar an eligible elector at this late date, only Mahony can resolve the complications that his participation in the conclave occasion.  [Card. O’Brien of Scotland has voluntarily chosen not to participate because of allegations.]

Recap: As of this moment, there are 118 eligible electors. By Thursday, 8 pm Rome time, there will be 117. One of them, Darmaatmadja, has declared that he will not participate because of physical infirmity (as such, he would be allowed to change his mind and be admitted even if the conclave had started); another, O’Brien, has declared he will not participate for reasons unstated but apparent to all (as such, he would not be allowed to change his mind and be admitted once the conclave has started).



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  1. I’m sorry but I am confused on something. Why won’t the absence of Darmaatmadja and OBrien hold things up? Because they issued statements? Does such a statement have to take a particular form? Is this not awfully ambiguous? If a cardinal in a less free country “issued a statement,” we would all be rightly suspicious.

    If, as it seems, the Motu proprio says they can’t change the date until electors are present, then I don’t see how they can change the date. Aren’t those two cardinals electors despite their statements that they won’t travel? If I announced I wouldn’t go vote on the next Election Day, I would still remain “an elector.”

    What am I missing here?

  2. Phil_NL says:

    I very much hope to be wrong about this….. but read this in conjunction with the previous entry. For the conclave to start, all electors should be present. Yet we know of one who will not come without being physically impeded to do so, O’Brien will be absent of his own free will, without declaring his reasons (nor the gravity of them). So cue the endless mumbling about the conclave being started illegally, because not all electors are there.

    For once one wished that BXVI would not have approached this in such a legalistic way, and simply said: “If the see becomes vacant, the departing pontiff can set a date for the conclave to begin. I order that it shall begin on March 3rd.” Mark my words, we’ll get some grief because of this.

  3. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Authorizing an earlier conclave start date under certain express conditions means, I think, authorizing resort to reasonable means to determine whether those conditions have been met. O’Brien has declared his intention not to enter the conclave, so the opening date can be set without further notice of him; if, however, he actually shows up before that opening, he can be admitted, but not after, even if it occurs before 15 full days from sede vacante have run.

  4. Phil_NL says:

    Dr Peters,

    As always, you present a logical and utterly reasonable approach to the matter. Sadly, there are plenty of people on the fringes (and some who aren’t) who will seek loopholes and cry ‘illegitimate’ for every such loophole they think they have found. Given that we have an overdose of such cries (not to mention the conspiracy theories that get added to them over the years) already, I still see this as unfortunate, providing with ammo which they shouldn’t be playing with.

    It’s not just that one has to be right, one has to be regarded as being right in these matters.

  5. “One of them, Darmaatmadja, has declared that he will not participate because of physical infirmity (as such, he would be allowed to change his mind and be admitted even if the conclave had started); ”

    Could you explain this, I thought once the conclave had begun the doors were sealed, etc. etc.

  6. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Thx. My preference, too, would have been for a fixed date. But what we got is workable within the legal system. So…

  7. Penta says:

    Well, at least there’s an answer to the question. Like Dr. Peters, I think I would have preferred a specified date. (However, I allow that that might be unworkable…What if, say, if there’s a sudden snowstorm (or something) that keeps a large block of cardinals from attending? And how much time do the behind-the-scenes folks (handling logistics, security, etc etc) need to do what needs doing before the conclave opens?)

    However, more pressingly. Does anybody want to take a crack at translating the Motu Proprio from Latin? My skills are not present, and Google Chrome’s translate feature is not really doing the job, either in Latin or Italian. When it detects that an obviously Latin document is in Latin, even.

  8. Kardinal says:

    Dr Peters,

    I assume the original intention of the specification of the timetable for a conclave was to prevent the a majority of the College from deciding to proceed with the Conclave early, before the arrival of Cardinals who would not support their candidate. Does this not open up the Conclave to such manipulation? What prevents the College from deciding that it has been long enough after 2 days and start the Conclave without Cardinal Electors they might disagree with?

  9. Fr AJ says:

    Kardinal, as I read it, it clearly says all the Cardinal-electors have to present to begin the Conclave, early or otherwise, so there’s no chance to start without all being there. This does mean, however, that if one or more Cardinal-electors disagree with starting the Conclave early, he could stay away until March 15th.

  10. Imrahil says:

    I thought, after re-reading the line “15 days waiting for absent Cardinal electors”, that the previous law was already saying what the law says now. (I gues this is the thinking that the dear @Dr Peters, on his blog, called “not unreasonable but wrong”.)

    But be that as it may, the new Motu proprio says “if all Cardinal electors are present”. I do not like to say it but it seems crystal clear to me that this rules out the possibility of beginning early when Cardinal elector Darmaatmadja (and possibly O’Brien, depending on what precisely his announcement of resignation as accepted by the Holy Father, now gloriously reigning, says) is absent.

    If we do not get yet another Motu proprio that enables the College of Cardinals to bypass an elector that has announced to them his decision to stay away.

    Something I do not say often, but I’d like to be wrong about this.

  11. Fr AJ says:

    Imrahil, I’d think there is an reasonable assumption behind this statement – all the Cardinal-electors are present that are able or wish to attend.

  12. Imrahil:

    That was my reading as well. But the cheerful canonist (Dr. Peters) doesn’t see a problem, it seems.

    It occurs to me that if one potential elector is absent, or two, there’s not much room for complaint about the outcome; but the scenario that disturbs me is that were some significant number of cardinals absent–and there were grounds for them, or others, to complain about this–then there is danger of someone calling the result into question. And I say this with, or without this motu proprio–i.e., I think that’s a perennial problem. So, aside from this specific issue, it seems to me best if as many cardinals as possible participate, and as far as I know, that’s what will happen.

    But someday?

    Also, what if Cardinal O’Brien–or someone in a like circumstance–says, I was pressured into not participating? There are pressure campaigns underway aimed at keeping Mahony and others out. I would not at all put it past the folks at the NSR* to come back, down the road, and question the legitimacy of a papal election, precisely because their efforts to keep out Mahony et al. were successful!

    Again, in this situation, the absence of one or two wouldn’t seem to be a big deal.

    * NSR = National Schismatic Reporter

  13. catholicmidwest says:

    Fr. Fox,
    I can’t imagine that Cdl Mahony will stay home in any case, much as he should. It’s not in character. And there are perhaps practical reasons as well. It might be looked upon as an admission of guilt with respect to the legal cases he’s been testifying in, and I’m sure this hasn’t escaped the teflon king of Los Angeles.

  14. Kardinal says:

    Fr AJ, (and any others)

    So what then of Cardinal O’Brien? He is voluntarily choosing to not attend the conclave, so would that not prevent the conclave from beginning early? By what authority would the College decide that Cardinal O’Brien is no longer a Cardinal Elector? By what criteria? Sure, we might think a reasonable standard that he has publicly said he will not, but is that sufficient to satisfy *the law*?

    We must remember here we are discussing the validity of the election of the Supreme Pontiff. Any doubt about the validity of said election could have serious consequences for the Church, at least in the short term (by which I mean 50 years or s0).

  15. Filipe says:

    Cardinal Naguib, Patriarch Emeritus of the Coptic Catholic Church, suffered a stroke on New Years Eve and almost certainly will be unable to attend. So 114 at the moment, I’d say.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Kardinal says:

    So what then of Cardinal O’Brien? He is voluntarily choosing to not attend the conclave, so would that not prevent the conclave from beginning early? By what authority would the College decide that Cardinal O’Brien is no longer a Cardinal Elector? By what criteria? Sure, we might think a reasonable standard that he has publicly said he will not, but is that sufficient to satisfy *the law*?

    Nonnullas normas makes reference to no. 40 of universi dominici gregis, which addresses the question of Cardinal electors who will not attend.

  17. acardnal says:

    I thought it interesting regarding the motu proprio that the Holy Father also changed the sanctions regarding violations of the oath of secrecy:

    By a modification to the text of paragraph 55,3
    : The punishment for any violation of the oath of secrecy is to be excommunication
    latae sententiae
    (the old text provided for “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future Pope”).

  18. Clinton R. says:

    Forgive me for going off topic and I doubt it will happen, but I sure do wish Pope Benedict XVI would ban the horrible practice of Holy Communion in the hand. This indult has done nothing but decrease our reverence for the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord.

  19. acardnal says:

    Kardinal, as robtbrown noted above, #40 of the Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis states (which would apply to Cdl. O’Brien’s situation):

    “40. If a Cardinal with the right to vote should refuse to enter Vatican City in order to take part in the election, or subsequently, once the election has begun, should refuse to remain in order to discharge his office, without manifest reason of illness attested to under oath by doctors and confirmed by the majority of the electors, the other Cardinals shall proceed freely with the election, without waiting for him or readmitting him. If on the other hand a Cardinal elector is constrained to leave Vatican City because of illness, the election can proceed without asking for his vote; if however he desires to return to the place of the election, once his health is restored or even before, he must be readmitted.”

    Universi Dominici Gregis will be up on my computer screen throughout the next few weeks.

  20. RichardT says:

    For those worried by doubt over the result of the forthcoming (or any future) conclave due to this new rule, it can only cause a problem if a cardinal says that he is not going to participate, the conclave starts without him, and he then turns up and is refused admission after the conclave has started but before the end of the 15 days.

  21. Stumbler but trying says:

    “By a modification to the text of paragraph 55,3
    : The punishment for any violation of the oath of secrecy is to be excommunication
    latae sententiae
    (the old text provided for “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future Pope”).”

    And thus we can be assured of no Cdl Mahoney’s tweets, yes? I seem to recall his saying he “would be tweeting daily from Rome.” I might be misquoting though but nevertheless at this time in our beloved Church’s history, I thank Pope Benedict XVI once again for his wisdom and vigilance over these matters of such grave importance.

  22. muckemdanno says:

    To elect the pope, is a 2/3 majority required of Cardinal electors present, or a 2/3 majority of all Cardinal electors, including those not present?

  23. Prof. Basto says:

    Cardinal O’Brien says he is not showing up. And I believe him. And I’m all in favour of him having no part in the Conclave. If you ask my opinion, his resignation as Archbishop is insufficient. He should have been deprived of the Cardinalate. And an emergency consistory should have been held today just for the pope to announce either his resignation from the Cardinalate or his deposition from the Sacred College. But, alas, Cardinal O’Brien remains a Cardinal of H.R.C. He, however, vows not to take part in the Conclave.

    However, just the other day, during a Press Conference about Universi Dominici Gregis, the Bishop Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts reminded us all that the Cardinal electors not only have the right to vote, it is their duty “in virtue of sacred obedience”, to comply with the summons and go to take part in the Conclave.

    So, are we to understand that what Cardinal O’Brien is saying is that he will receive a summons from the Dean of the College of Cardinals, convoking him to the Conclave in virtue of holy obedience, and that he, in posession of that letter of summons, will disregard it, and ignore the summons, thereby commiting yet another violation of ecclesiastical law?

    Or will O’Brien attempt to formalize his situation and obtain leave not to appear, by invoking an impediment under article 38 of Universi Dominici Gregis (an article that was left in place untouched after today’s reform)? Article 38 of UDG states:

    “38. All the Cardinal electors, convoked for the election of the new Pope by the Cardinal Dean, or by another Cardinal in his name, are required, in virtue of holy obedience, to obey the announcement of convocation and to proceed to the place designated for this purpose, unless they are hindered by sickness or by some other grave impediment, which however must be recognized as such by the College of Cardinals.”

    So, under that norm should Cardinal attempt to excuse himself by ivoking “some other grave impediment”, that reason given for the absence will have to be discussed by the Cardinals in one of the preparatory General Congregations, and in order for the Cardinal to be excused from attendance, the impediment invoked needs to be recognized as such by the College of Cardinals.

    In the above mentioned press conference, the Bishop Secretary of the PCILT explained that, if the Cardinals do not agree that the reason given is a just cause, then they wirte to the prelate again, stating that his impediment was not recognized as a just cause, and insisting on his appearence for the Conclave.

    Cardinal Darmaatmadja , who is sick, will surely follow the procedure described in article 38 and the College of Cardinals is expected to grant him leave of absence from the Conclave. However, will Cardinal O’Brian follow the procedure of article 38 and argue that his present situation constitutes a species of “other grave impediment” justifying absence?

    Which considerations lead us to the question of the date for the start of the Conclave.

    If the procedure of article 38 is followed by Cardinal O’Brien and leave of absence is given, then it is my opinion that, from that point on, the Cardinals no longer need to wait for him. When leave of absence is granted, the Cardinal has formaly and given notice that he will not appear in Conclave, and this has been legally accepted by the College.

    However, if leave of absence is asked for, and the Cardinals refuse it, by reaching the conclusion that the motive given is not a “grave impediment” within the meaning of the law, then the Cardinal must be informed of the decision and must be given time to attend. To be more precise: if a Cardinal is refused leave of absence and is compelled to attend, then the College must wait the full 15 days to see if the Cardinal will comply with the demand. Even if the Cardinal continues to say – defying the decision of the College to refuse the leave of absence – that he is not going, then, because of the gravity of such continued refusal to obey, the College should wait the full 15 days.

    Also, if Cardinal O’Brien elects not to follow the procedure of article 38, that is, if the Cardinal asks for no leave of absence, and gives no formal notice of his intention not to appear in Conclave, then, in my opinion, the College of Cardinals cannot take notice of his informal statements to the effect that he is not going. Formally and juridically, he will still receive a letter of summons from the Cardinal Dean, and under article 38 he will be required by the bonds of sacred obedience to attend the Conclave. Therefore, in the absence of a formal request for a leave of absence, the College should assume that he is coming as the law requires, and should wait for him the full 15 days.

    In other words, the conclusion of my opinion is that the Conclave can start early even with Cardinal electors not in attendance, but provided that such absent Cardinals have obtained formal leave of absence under article 38 of UDG.

    Without the formality of the leave of absence, it cannot be assumed that they will fail to comply with the OBLIGATION to appear, and the Church then needs to wait for them for 15 days from the start of the Sede Vacante.

  24. acardnal says:

    muckemdanno wrote, “To elect the pope, is a 2/3 majority required of Cardinal electors present, or a 2/3 majority of all Cardinal electors, including those not present?”

    Answer from para 62 of UDG: “I therefore decree that for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff two thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present.”

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