• John Thavis

A non-cardinal as pope?

My Italian colleague Gianfranco Brunelli, who directs the excellent Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno, suggested in an interview yesterday that cardinal electors should take advantage of a little-known clause in canon law and consider electing a non-cardinal in the coming conclave.

It’s a suggestion that has circulated quietly in Rome since Benedict XVI announced his retirement. Most observers discount the idea, but technically it’s a possibility.

Church law says a person elected to the papacy should either be a bishop or must be immediately ordained a bishop. Canon lawyers debate how wide a field that wording creates, but it’s clear that the next pope doesn’t have to be a cardinal.

Nor does he have to be under the age of 80 – which is a requirement to vote in the conclave.

Brunelli said the cardinals should, in fact, consider choosing a bishop as pope. He says it would be “an act of freedom, strength and courage” in the wake of the ex-pope’s courageous decision to resign. The cardinals would not be saying there aren’t enough good candidates in the room, but recognizing “the experiences of deep renewal and pastoral energy present in the local churches,” he said.

“It would be a statement that, even today, the Catholic Church has pastoral figures who are prophetic,” Brunelli said.

If would also widen the field of papabili tremendously. The church has more than 5,000 bishops; it has only 117 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave.

That’s probably the biggest argument against choosing a non-cardinal. Just getting to know their fellow cardinals well enough to make a choice is considered a daunting task for those who will cast votes in the conclave. The idea of an outside candidate would require time to mature – and many of the cardinals seem in a hurry to wrap this up.

The last time a non-cardinal was elected pope was in 1378, when Italian Archbishop Bartolomeo Prignano became Pope Urban VI. In part because of the outside political pressures of that time, his 11-year reign was fairly disastrous, leading to the Great Western Schism.

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