Rules of the papal conclave, explained

Here's what will happen behind closed doors as cardinals elect a new pope

Cardinals attend a mass for the election of a new pope inside St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican on Tuesday, March 12, 2013. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Though the rules for appointing a new pope have changed over the centuries, John Paul II updated them significantly on Feb. 22, 1996 with the release of “Universi Dominici Gregis” (UDG), which allowed a pope to be elected by a simple majority if no one had been elected after 12 days of voting. Benedict XVI reversed that rule in 2007 and returned to the traditional two-thirds vote. Then, six days before he retired, he amended the rules again, permitting a conclave to start early if the cardinal electors had gathered in Rome.

Conclave: Latin cum (with) and clavis (key): a room locked with a key.


  • The camerlengo, or chamberlain (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) assumes control. He seals the private papal apartments.
  • All senior members of the curia (government) resign.
  • During the vacancy, “cardinals are to wear the usual black cassock with piping and the red sash, with skullcap, pectoral cross and ring,” according to John Paul II’s UDG.
  • The day after Benedict resigned, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 85, dean of the College of Cardinals, formally informed the cardinals that the papacy is vacant and called them to Rome.
  • As the electors gather in Vatican City, all cardinals, regardless of age, hold meetings called “general congregations” to discuss the challenges facing the Church and the qualities needed in the new pope. They also use the time to meet the papabile, the leading candidates. Cardinals swear an oath to keep the discussions secret.
  • They have the old pope’s fisherman’s ring destroyed, a tradition that harkens back to days when it was to prevent forgeries during the interregnum.
  • The cardinals set the date for the conclave by a simple majority vote.
  • Under Benedict’s change, it can begin once all the cardinal electors are present, not the previously required 15 to 20 full days after the death or resignation.
  • To be allowed to vote, cardinals cannot have reached their 80th birthday before the day when the Apostolic See becomes vacant. (Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine is excluded because his 80th was two days before Benedict left.) There are 115 cardinal electors.
  • Prior to Benedict’s election in 2005, cardinal electors stayed in the Apostolic Palace where the pope resides and slept on cots in makeshift rooms with sheets as room dividers (anything more permanent would damage the 16th century building). John Paul II had a modern five-storey guesthouse, Domus Sanctae Marthae, built nearby in 1996 so the cardinals could sleep and pray in comfort. The 131 rooms and suites are distributed by lot. Since its upper floors can be seen by Roman neighbours, window shutters are closed and locked. It has a dining room, and five chapels.
  • Only specially authorized and vetted personnel, including cooks, cleaners and doctors, are allowed into the building immediately before and during the conclave.
  • All those non-voters allowed into the conclave area—for example, the master of papal liturgical celebration—are sworn to “strict secrecy,” promise not to bring in recording equipment and must take an oath to that effect. The penalty is automatic excommunication.


  • The cardinals take part in a eucharist, ideally in the morning.
  • In the afternoon, they assemble in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace. Wearing “choir dress” (their formal red-cloth and white-lace outfits) and chanting Veni Creator they walk to the Sistine Chapel, where the election takes place.
  • Michelangelo’s masterpiece, according to the UDG, must “remain an absolutely enclosed area until the conclusion of the election, so that total secrecy may be ensured with regard to everything said or done there in any way pertaining, directly or indirectly, to the election of the supreme pontiff.” The area is swept for bugs, cameras and any other surveillance equipment.
  • The cardinals say a communal oath and then an individual oath to uphold the rules. The punishment for making “any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind” is immediate excommunication. The conclave starts.
  • During the election the cardinals refrain “from written correspondence and from all conversations, including those by telephone or radio, with persons who have not been duly admitted to the buildings set aside for their use,” according to UDG. The only exception is in cases of “proven and urgent necessity.” It is explicitly forbidden to “receive newspapers or periodicals of any sort, to listen to the radio or to watch television.”
  • They are never to reveal anything about what happens during the conclave upon punishment of ex-communication.
  • Cardinals can walk or be bused to the Sistine Chapel for voting. No one can approach the cardinal electors enroute.

Voting procedure

There are three phases to voting, which usually occurs twice in the morning and afternoon:

1. The ballots are prepared and distributed. Each is rectangular and the upper half bears the words, Eligo in Summum Pontificem (I elect as supreme pontiff); room is left on the bottom to write the name of the person chosen so the ballot can be folded in half. During the voting, everyone but the 115 cardinal electors must leave the Sistine Chapel. Nine of the electors are chosen by lots to act as scrutineers, Infirmarii (those who collect votes of the sick) and revisers. There are rules to have others take those positions as the voting continues.

Though traditionally the candidates are cardinals, the electors can chose anyone who is a male Catholic who has reached the age of reason, isn’t a heretic, schismatic (refuse communion with true Catholics) or “in simony” (buying or selling sacraments or Church positions).

2. Each elector holds up his folded ballot to all to see and goes to the altar, where he says, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” He places it in a silver and gilded bronze urn.

One of the infirmarii collects the ballots from the ill. If at the residence, then all three infirmarii collect an elector’s ballot in another urn. There are even rules if the cardinal is unable to write.

3. After everyone including the scrutineers have voted and all the ballots have been placed in the urn, the container is shaken and then opened. Each scrutineer records each vote. The third also reads the ballot choice out loud while he “pierces each one with a needle through the word Eligo and places it on a thread, so that the ballots can be more securely preserved.

After the names have been read out, the ends of the thread are tied in a knot, and the ballots thus joined together are placed in a receptacle or on one side of the table.

The revisers must double check the ballots. If no one obtains at least two-thirds of the vote on that ballot, a pope has not been elected. There are two votes in the morning and then, after a break, two more in the afternoon. Before the electors leave the chapel, the scrutineers burn the ballots in a stove installed for that purpose, along with any notes made by the cardinals. If there is no decision, chemicals are added to the fire in another stove to produce black smoke so the outside world knows that no pope has been elected.

After balloting has been unsuccessful for three days, voting can be suspended for a maximum of one day for prayer and informal discussion. Then, after another seven ballots, there is another pause. Another seven votes and another pause. Another seven votes. If there still isn’t a winner, then a Vatican version of sudden-death rules take effect. The electors’ vote is restricted to the two leading contenders as of the last ballot. Those two can’t vote for themselves. But the two-thirds rule still applies.


When the two-thirds majority is reached, the cardinals invite in senior Vatican officials. Then the dean or senior cardinal asks the winner two questions on behalf of the entire college:

1. Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?

2. By what name do you wish to be called?

If the person elected is already a bishop, then he’s immediately the bishop of the Church of Rome—the pope.

The final ballots are burned, using chemicals to create white smoke so the outside world knows there is a new pope.

The conclave ends immediately. The camerlengo records the voting results, which will be given to the new pope and then sealed in an envelope and kept in the archive.

The new pope, after being dressed in papal garb in the nearby Room of Tears, is escorted to the papal apartment. The doors are opened and a senior cardinal announces to the world: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam” (I announce to you a great joy: we have a Pope). Then the new head of the Catholic Church appears on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

SOURCES: Vatican documents including “Universi Dominici Gregis” and “Normas Nonnullas”;; Catholic News

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