Who Has Authority to Elect Popes and Can the Rules Change?

The Benevacantists are Catholics who do not accept the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, nor the election afterward of Pope Francis. Instead, they hold that Benedict did not validly resign, and so he remained the true Pope. This implies that Pope Francis is (or was) an illegitimate Pope or antipope. Such claims are false, as I have already explained in previous posts.

Recently, some Benevacantists, who are also members of the diocese of Rome, gathered, subsequent to the death of Pope Benedict XVI, to claim to elect the next Pope. Since they do not believe Francis was legitimately elected Pope after the resignation of Benedict, they concluded that the See of Peter became vacant with the death of Benedict. Of course, Pope emeritus Benedict, after his resignation, never claimed or behaved as if he were still Pope. In any case, these lost sheep of the diocese of Rome gathered and held a claimed conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Whom did they elect? Pope Francis. Yes, they voted to elect Francis as the legitimate successor to Benedict.

I suppose it is a good thing that they now accept Pope Francis as the true Pope. But they remain in a state of schism, as they do not believe that any of the decisions on doctrine or discipline made by Francis between his true election in 2013 and their claimed election of him in 2023 were legitimate. So they do not accept almost ten years of magisterial teachings and doctrinal decisions as having been issued by the true successor of Peter. And that error is very grave.

In explaining this choice to elect Francis, after years of opposing him with the claim that he erred gravely on doctrine and discipline, they recalled the example of Pope Vigilius. He was first a deacon, who wrote to the emperor and offered to teach heresy and place a heretic on the See of Constantinople, if the emperor would make him Pope. So it happened that the emperor forced the true Pope, Silverius, into exile, and installed Vigilius as an antipope in Rome. Vigilius then did teach heresy, but the body of Bishops and people of Rome did not accept him as Pope, since the true Pope Silverius was still alive.

Upon the death of Silverius, Vigilius was accepted as the true Pope by the body of Bishops — as evidenced by their efforts to obtain his approval for the Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II).

The example of Pope Vigilius, d. 555, as related by Saint Bellarmine: “It happened a little afterward, that [Pope] Silverius died and Vigilius, who to that point sat in schism, now began to be the sole and legitimate Pontiff for certain through the confirmation and reception by the clergy and the Roman people. From this time neither error nor feigning of error was discovered in Vigilius, but rather, supreme constancy in the faith even to death, as it shall appear. For he received with the pontificate the strength of faith and he was changed from a weak chaff into the most solid rock.”

So the Benevacantists, in thinking to elect Francis as Pope, even though they held him to be a teacher of grave error, considered that God will convert anyone weak in faith who becomes Pope, just as Vigilius was converted. And they are right on that particular point, as Saint Robert Bellarmine confirms.

But do the clergy or people of Rome have the authority to elect the Roman Pontiff?

In this letter, Fra Alessio Bugnolo, a Benevacantist who called for the illicit conclave after the death of Benedict, claims the following (translation by Google Chrome browser):

“the Catholics of Rome have the right to elect their own bishop”

“Who denies this, and denies the Apostolic Succession in the See of Rome, and makes every pope after Peter a fake.”

“Yes, there is a restriction in that law [John Paul II document Universi Dominici Gregis], which states that for the election of the Pope only the Cardinal Electors can vote (n. 33), this restriction applies only to the manner of election in that Apostolic Constitution, because otherwise it would be in danger to the Apostolic Succession.”

“… they claim that John Paul II wants at all times and places, even outside a conclave, that only the cardinal electors vote. But if that were the case, then the enemies of God would only have to kill 120 men, to put an end to the Apostolic Succession forever. And that would make the Gates of Hell prevail. Which is absurd.”

My reply to the above argument (read it in full here):

First, no diocese votes for its Bishop. The Bishop is assigned by the Apostolic See, with the approval of the Roman Pontiff. Theoretically, it is possible for the Apostolic See to delegate this authority to a Metropolitan or a Bishops’ Conference, but the current longstanding discipline is for the Apostolic See to decide on the ordination, appointment, and any transfer or removal of Bishops throughout the world.

How the successors of Peter were chosen in the early Church is not clear. But there seems to be no evidence of any Roman Pontiff, nor the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff (as in an Ecumenical Council) having decided on a discipline, at any time in the Church, whereby the clergy and laity would vote on the new Bishop of Rome, who would then be the Pope.

Christ gave Peter and his successors His own divine authority over the Church. They are each the Vicar of Christ, exercising His holy authority. Then Christ did not appoint only one Apostle, Peter, but 12 Apostles (with Matthias later replacing Judas, by a vote of the other Apostles, not the people of Rome). So the structure of authority in the Church has an Apostolic College (the body of Bishops) with the successor of the Apostle Peter, the Pope, as its head.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 22: “But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.(27*) This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church,(156) and made him shepherd of the whole flock;(157) it is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter,(158) was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head.”

Therefore, the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff has authority over the process for election of subsequent Roman Pontiffs. And the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff can also exercise authority over this process. There is no teaching of the Church saying that the people of the Rome diocese have any special authority over the choice of the next Pope. The supreme authority given to the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops with him has no such exception.

Fra Alessio Bugnolo states that the document of Pope Saint John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, governs only the manner of the election, and is not absolute in scope — which is true in so far as its contents are discipline, rather than doctrine. The rules for the election of subsequent Popes has changed many times and can change.

But the current rules for a conclave are not a danger to Apostolic Succession. If there were either no more Cardinals, as in Bunolo’s hypothetical worst case scenario, or if the Cardinals were divided by schism or preventing from attending a conclave by war, or if various other scenarios intervened, so that not enough Cardinals could gather for a conclave, the body of Bishops — who solely possess the authority of Christ over the Church when no Roman Pontiff is in office (due to death or valid resignation) — can enact new rules for the impending conclave. This is true regardless of the discipline chosen by Pope Saint John Paul II or another Pope who might subsequently enact new rules. For discipline is changeable, and the authority of Christ is given to the successors of the Apostles — first and foremost to the successor of Peter, but also to the body of Bishops.

Therefore, when the Cardinals gather in any conclave to elect the next Pope, they exercise the authority of the body of Bishops. The Roman Pontiffs and the body of Bishops, successively, have for many centuries arranged and approved of this discipline for electing successive Popes. But this authority is given to the Cardinal electors by Roman Pontiffs and the body of Bishops, who alone hold the authority of Christ in the Church. It is true that Cardinals are generally Bishops. But if all the Cardinals, God forbid, ever rebelled against the Pope and the body of Bishops, they could not stand against the successor of Peter and the body of Bishops faithful to him.

So it is certain that the authority over the discipline of conclaves rests with the Roman Pontiff, and with the body of Bishops led by him. Then, after the death of a Roman Pontiff, if it were ever the case that the discipline for electing the Roman Pontiff would not be possible to follow, a valid and licit election could still be held by authority of the body of Bishops. And under that authority, they could possibly choose to include Bishops as well as any remaining and able Cardinals as electors in that conclave. For no mere discipline can destroy the plan of Christ that there be perpetual successors to Peter, until Christ returns. As Bugnolo correctly says, the gates of Hell cannot prevail over the Church by a supposed impossibility of electing a successor to Peter.

The current rules for electing a Pope, Universi Dominici Gregis (modified slightly by Pope Benedict XVI), require the Cardinals to gather at Vatican City within a certain number of days. What if war or some other problem prevents this gathering in the right place at the right time? In such a case, it would be contrary to dogma to claim that no valid election is possible. Instead, since discipline is not absolute — for even the disciplines of the Old Testament, enacted by God in Sacred Scripture, were dispensed by Christ and His Church (see Florence) — the body of Bishops can decide on the new discipline, including who may vote, and where and when the conclave will be held.

Therefore, the clergy and laity of Rome do not have authority to hold a conclave and elect a new Pope, not unless the Roman Pontiff or the body of Bishops with him decided upon such a discipline — which they did not.

What If An Election Is Suspect?

What if a papal election is suspected of being illicit or invalid? In such a case, the authority of the Church and the authority of the Roman Pontiff is not based on the argumentation of the clergy and laity over the details of the election. Instead, the papacy of the person who is elected is confirmed as valid by the acceptance of the body of Bishops of the new Roman Pontiff. For the Church is Apostolic and indefectible. But if the body of Bishops went astray by following an invalid or heretical Pope (or antipope), then the Church would no longer by Apostolic or indefectible, which is impossible.

Pope Francis has been accepted by the body of Bishops, continuously, as the true Roman Pontiff, from the time of his election. Such acceptance “heals in the root” any real or alleged problems with a conclave, and confirms as a dogmatic fact the validity of that Roman Pontiff.

In the same way, Pope Francis cannot be a heretic or apostate or idolater, not only because of the charism of truth and never-failing faith given to every Roman Pontiff, but also because the body of Bishops accepts the authority and teaching of Pope Francis — which they could not do, if that teaching were gravely erroneous or had failed in faith. The indefectibility of the Church and Her Apostolic character absolutely prevents, by the prevenient grace of God, that the body of Bishops and the Pope would go astray from the true Faith. It is a dogmatic fact that Pope Francis is not guilty of any grave errors in doctrine or discipline, and is not guilty of any grave failures of faith, publicly or privately.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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