Was the election of Pope Francis “invalid” because Cardinals committed certain crimes?

Canonist Ed Peters looks into the issue of the excommunication incurred by a cardinal elector who “canvasses” for votes in the context of a papal conclave.  HERE

I won’t, here, get into Dr. Peter’s proposal that automatic (late sententiae) excommunication should be done away with.  That’s not at issue.  His examination of the consequences of such an excommunication, incurred by a cardinal elector before (or during) a conclave is of great interest.

Automatic censures should be eliminated from Church law

September 26, 2015

Only two kinds of men publicly admit to doing evil: those who repent of their deeds and are willing to accept the consequences for having acted wrongly, and those who are comfortable with their conduct and believe that no serious consequences will come from divulging it.

Several reports based on Godfried Cdl. Danneels’ just-released, authorized biography indicate that the now-retired Belgian prelate helped lead a clique of cardinals directly opposed to Benedict XVI’s papacy. [Imagine my shock.] If true that suggests sin, but not crime. It seems, however, that some members of this clique, after Benedict resigned, engaged in pre-conclave politicking for then-Cdl. Bergoglio, politicking of the sort that is forbidden by conclave law (Universi 81). If true, that would be a sin and a crime. Danneels’ admissions, read in the light of other allegations and reports, suggests, then, that at least some cardinals committed at least some offenses for which they are at risk of the Church’s highest sanction, namely, excommunication, more precisely, latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.

Which means they are at risk for—not much, really. Shall I elaborate?  [Please do, Ed.]

The canonical consequences of “excommunication” are set out in Canon 1331. A cursory glance at that canon shows these consequences to be very serious, including: prohibiting individuals from celebrating Mass, participating in sacraments, or exercising ecclesiastical roles, offices, and functions, and so on. [roles, offices, functions… like being a Cardinal elector in a conclave?] Besides suffering the spiritual consequences of having engaged in whatever gravely sinful conduct underlies the crime in question (and note: consignment to hell has never been a consequence of excommunication, though it could be one of unrepented sin), any Catholic automatically excommunicated is in deep trouble. [It’s not good not to be able to “GO TO CONFESSION!”]

But that same cursory glance at Canon 1331 will not show (unless one is trained in canon law) that most consequences of excommunication become relevant in the external forum only if the excommunication is “imposed or declared”. That short, technical phrase means that, while one who is “automatically” excommunicated labors under the personal burdens of this sanction, it is only when an excommunication is “formal” that actions performed by canonical criminals raise questions for Church life and governance.  [So, if you are excommunicated by your acts but there hasn’t been a formal public declaration, you still exercise your roles, etc.  That is why after Archbp. Lefevbre et al. got themselves excommunicated automatically in 1988, the Congregation for Bishops issued a formal declaration of same.]

The canonically untutored do not (and should not be expected to) understand that the consequences of excommunication for public Church life differ dramatically based on whether the excommunication is “automatic” or “formal”, that most of the ‘bite’ that people attribute to excommunication (like not being able to function in Church offices) comes only with formal excommunication, and that formal excommunication has practically disappeared from modern Church life because (1) a host of canonical defenses unnecessarily burdens prosecution of excommunicable crimes, and (2) ecclesiastical authority apparently feels that, as long as latae sententiaeexcommunication is on the books (and most folks think it does what “excommunication” does anyway) why bother with a complex, portentous process for turning an automatic excommunication into a formal one? Whatever the reasons, Roman prosecutions of “formal” excommunication cases are rare; those involving prelates are very rare; those involving cardinals are essentially unheard of. [Too which I respond: Too bad!  When I Pope, they won’t be.]

Thus, it is hard to see what canonical consequences a cardinal would have to fear if he were to admit to a canonical crime punishable by latae sententiae excommunication. If it turns out that one or more cardinals violated, say, Universi 81, they might (and I stress, might) be “automatically” excommunicated, but “automatic” excommunication impacts—I hate to put it this way—only the liceity of ecclesiastical acts, not their validity. So, while it might be distressing to see appointed to synodal service some cardinals who could be “automatically excommunicated”, whatever acts such men might place at a synod would be, by the plain text of canon law, valid. And no one seems especially incentivized to inquire further than that.


Read his jeremiad against automatic penalties there.

The core of this is that the election of Pope Francis was valid even though there were irregularities amongst cardinal electors which (I think) should be dealt with now. Better late than never.


Sigh.  It looks like I have to impose the moderation queue again.  I removed some intemperate comments.

ALL: Please make your points without having a nutty.  This isn’t Fishwrap.




About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Elizium23 says:

    Deal with them, and bite the hand that feeds you? Somehow I believe we will not see a lot of action on these points.

  2. S.Armaticus says:

    At least we are talking about them… finally.

    And getting them out into the public domain FOR THE RECORD.

    It’s just like with alcoholics, the hardest step is admitting that their is a problem.

  3. anilwang says:

    Agreed, but there is a way it could work if the process were changed. Currently, the conclave makes a decision, the candidate thinks about it, and if the candidate accepts, the candidate becomes the Pope and if wrong doing is later found, too bad he’s the Pope and no-one can kick him out and the Pope won’t likely persecute the conspirators.

    IMO, a better process would be, the conclave makes a decision, the candidate thinks about it, and if the candidate accepts, the candidate becomes the Pope-elect. Immediately an investigation is made with an Angel’s Advocate and Devil’s Advocate looking into the validity of the election. After a period of time (e.g. 1 month, in honor of Pope John Paul 1) the determination is recorded. If all is well, the Pope-elect becomes Pope. If not, the cardinals are called back for another election without the offending parties and the next Pope decides whether or not to formalize any excommunication.

  4. Gratias says:

    Francis is in. The interesting thing is who orchestrated Benedict XVI’s abdication. I cannot believe the story that it was the butler. Almost every day I pray for a long life for our holy Benedict.

  5. Phil_NL says:

    If we take the hisotry of the Church into consideration, way worse things have happened at elections. Past crimes and interference ranged from outright simony, to the populace putting the cardinals on a frugal diet to speed things up – I wonder if nowadays we shouldn’t entice more reflection by sending in 5 course meals and XO cognac – to removing the roof (thankfully that was before the Sixtine Chapel), and undoubtedly lots of politicking, not just from cardinals but by kings and emperor alike.

    Rarely was such an election afterwards voided, and never outside those few cases (relative to the total number) where there was an antipope (who could be in possesion of St Peter’s, or not). If there’s no other contender, the result was accepted without further ado. As that was the practice for almost 2 millenia, why suddenly change it? Yes, elections are run by humans. Humans commit sins, crimes and even if they don’t, are prone to error. But the Church has, by its history, shown that the unity and continuity of the Church is much more important than most irregularities.

    Habemus Papam. That’s it.

    One note on Cdl Danneels: he keeps popping up related to all the wrong topics, and that has been the case for a long, long time – decades. I think we should keep the possibility in mind that he’s now also an easy scapegoat (having produced so much smoke, it’s easy to relate yet another fire to him). That said, he’s now over 80, and will never vote in a conclave again. Probably this is for the best for everyone. It’s more interesting to see who else, who hasn’t reached such an eminent age yet, was involved…

  6. Bosco says:

    Ah! Those crafty hanging chad papal electors. Outfoxed even Pope St. John Paul II they did. ..for now.

  7. Lin says:

    At least there is now some validity to the unsettled feeling I have felt from the day he stepped out on the balcony at the Vatican. Woe to those cardinals who participated in this deceit. Doctrine may not change but the uncatechised continue to be mislead. These cardinals need our prayers and pray that God does not permit this to continue. This has been a very difficult time for me (penance) with Obama as president and Bergolio as pope. Pray! Pray! Pray!

  8. AnnTherese says:

    I agree with Phil_NL. As much as we might wish otherwise, the Church is a political machine, and this sort of activity is par for the course. We humans, ordained or not, know how to muck up just about anything when our egos take the lead. That said, I still believe that in spite of our human shenanigans, the Holy Spirit is guiding us, sorting out our messes, working miracles, etc.– as always throughout our salvation history.

  9. MWindsor says:

    It doesn’t really matter at this stage. Obama has been president for almost seven years, so his birth certificate, or the validity thereof, his real birthplace in the heart of Africa, “my muslim faith”, is really….


    What are we talking about?

  10. HighMass says:

    Really should this biography surprise us? Haven’t we smelled this all along. We knew Pope Benedict was under attack and the wolves that he spoke of at the start of his Pontificate finally succeeded …a Very Holy Priest told me the other day that no one can force the Pope Out….well I am not so sure of that and due to his age….

    God Continue to Bless Pope Benedict and keep him in your care, as he will always be my Papa.

  11. GypsyMom says:

    There may not be a legislative penalty for all wrong doers in this life, but there can almost always be some price to pay here. In this case, the corrupt cardinals may now have overplayed their hand among their confreres. As it was, the faithful cardinals stood up loud and strong against the machinations of this cabal last October. Now with this plot being openly and proudly revealed, the orthodox cardinals have all the poof and incentive they need to fiercely fight the plans of these criminal cardinals this October.

  12. Praynfast says:

    I think an equally good question is in regards to paragraph 80 (NOT 81) being violated by at least Cardinal McCarrick. A video of Cardinal McCarrick entitled “Who Is Pope Francis?” (the video is available here: https://fromrome.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/cardinal-mccarrick-confesses-that-he-was-lobbied-to-support-cardinal-bergoglio/) shows Cardinal McCarrick mentioning a “very influential Italian gentleman” who met with McCarrick prior to the General Conversations and then suggested that McCarrick “talk up” Bergoglio and “push” for Bergoglio.

    Later in the video, Cardinal McCarrick explains that he his speech in the General Conversation included specific qualities that he was looking for in the next pope – all of which essentially describe Cardinal Bergoglio (especially his suggestion that the next pope be from Latin America).

    UDG #80 states: “I again forbid each and every Cardinal elector, present and future, as also the Secretary of the College of Cardinals and all other persons taking part in the preparation and carrying out of everything necessary for the election, to accept under any pretext whatsoever, from any civil authority whatsoever, the task of proposing the veto or the so-called exclusiva, even under the guise of a simple desire, or to reveal such either to the entire electoral body assembled together or to individual electors, in writing or by word of mouth, either directly and personally or indirectly and through others, both before the election begins and for its duration. I intend this prohibition to include all possible forms of interference, opposition and suggestion whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree, or any individual or group, might attempt to exercise influence on the election of the Pope.”

    “…all possible forms of interference, opposition and suggestion whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree, or any individual or group, might attempt to exercise influence on the election of the Pope” would include a “very influential Italian gentleman” that requested that Cardinal McCarrick influence the conclave in Bergoglio’s favor.

    Simply watch Cardinal McCarrick’s presentation describing the happenings before the conclave, all of the evidence is in the video.

  13. tm30 says:

    The elephant in the room is not the person sitting in the Chair of Peter. The elephant in the room is Emeritus. With the apparent affirmation of a cabal that was set up against Benedict XVI, and his own comments about praying that he not flee “for fear of the wolves”, it still begs an answer to the question of whether he was coerced into abdicating. That’s where “validity” comes into play, if there’s any “there” there.

    Nonetheless, Francis is our pope, and we’re incumbent to believe that as a matter of obedience and preserving unity. But if anything untoward took place, tremble for those who partook, and intercede for them. Their judgment will be severe.

  14. Arele says:

    So, based on what this Canonist says, it’s very likely that Pope Francis was valid but illicit? Ugh…just makes me feel dirty…

    But I agree with tm30 above that validity comes more into question as it concerns Pope Emeritus and his resignation, if he indeed was in any way threatened or coerced. It strikes me that this is much like a marriage where the question is asked if the participants seek the marriage freely – of their own free will. And if not, that is grounds for annulment.

    And speaking of marriage, I also really resonate with the sentiment in this report regarding a cardinal about to vote in the conclave in March 2013 regarding his angst over Pope Benedict’s resignation, who said:

    Cardinal, “It is like a man and a woman, a husband and wife, a mother and father in relation to their children,’ he said….”They say, ‘until death do us part!’ They stay together always.”
    Moynihan, “So I understood him to be saying that he felt a Successor of Peter should not step down from the throne, no matter how weary and tired, but continue until death.”

    There is something true about this that really resonates deeply with me.

    And it makes even more sense if you consider that Pope Emeritus might have been threatened, coerced, or otherwise convinced that he must step down for the good of the church (for instance, that if he did not, worse “Vatileaks” would come out that would be harmful for the church) and so, not really of his own free will. Would that be a valid resignation?

    Much to prayerfully consider here…and I’m sure there will be much more to come.

    St. Michael, pray for us!

  15. Pingback: Video: A Message To Pope Francis | Nice Deb

  16. Benedict Joseph says:

    Sadly it appears some conditions of Catholic blogging appear to allow those who “work around the edges” without calling them to account. Rather than calling the delinquent to accountability, we observe, we contort, we mourn, we bite our tongues, and the band plays on. We play by the rules, we get a knife in the back and the felonious receive a pat on the back. Those not held to account for their transgressions are regarded as groundbreaking and to be emulated. And those not held to account for their transgressions do not change their behavior.
    If the “Kasper Kamera” had not been in place last year, the derisive comments would surely have been held unbelievable, particularly because he denied saying it. The camera was there, and we saw what goes on underneath the rock. Any reason to assume things have changed in the last year? Or that they weren’t in place years back as Cardinal Danneels revels?
    And surprise, Mr. Pentin now reports the authors have altered their story…
    Speaking about it all with politeness does not mask the scent.

  17. Geoffrey says:

    Who would be able to conduct an investigation to see if the norms of Universi Dominici Gregis were violated? A journalist? A committee of cardinals appointed by the Holy Father?

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