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The method of electing the pope has varied considerably at different periods of the history of the Church .
As to the earliest ages, Ferraris (op. cit. infra ) says that St. Peter himself constituted a senate for the Roman Church, consisting of twenty-four priests and deacons. These were the councillors of the Bishop of Rome and the electors of his successors. This statement is drawn from a canon in the "Corpus Juris Canonici" (can. "Si Petrus", caus. 8, Q. 1). Historians and canonists, however, generally hold that the Roman bishopric was filled on its vacancy in the same manner as other bishoprics, that is, the election of the new pope was made by the neighbouring bishops and the clergy and faithful of Rome. Nevertheless, some maintain that the naming of the successor of St. Peter was restricted to the Roman clergy, and that the people were admitted to a part in the elections only after the time of Sylvester I (fourth century).
After Constantine had given peace to the Church, the Christian Roman emperors often took part in the institution of a new pope and at times their influence was very marked. From the fourth century onwards, therefore, a new force had to be reckoned with. The occasion for the interference of the Roman emperors and later of the kings of Italy was afforded by disputed elections to the papal chair. The most noted of the earlier instance was at the election of Boniface I (418). This gave occasion to the decree (c. 8, dist. 79) that when an election was disputed a new candidate should be chosen.
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The interference of the secular power was always distasteful to the Roman clergy, as shown by their unwillingness to observe decrees on the subject made even by popes, as in the case of Simplicius and others. The example of the Roman emperors was followed by the barbarian kings of Italy, of whom the first to interfere was Theodoric the Ostrogoth , at the election of Symmachus in 498. On the recovery of their influence in the Italian peninsula, the Eastern emperors required that the choice of the electors for a new pope must be made known to the Exarch of Ravenna, who in turn forwarded it to Constantinople, and until the emperor's confirmation was received, the candidate was not to be acknowledged as Bishop of Rome . This resulted in long vacancies of the Holy See. The custom lasted until the pontificate of Benedict II (684-85). A similar claim was put forward by the Western emperors in the Middle Ages, and some demanded it owing to a concession made by Adrian I to Charlemagne. This pretended concession is now recognized as spurious. As to the so-called confirmation of papal elections by the secular power, Ferraris (loc. cit. infra ) notes that it must not be so understood as to imply that the new pope received the papal power from the emperor. This would be heretical, for the elected candidate receives his power from Christ.
The confirmation of the emperor, then, was only to ensure that the canons of the Church should be carried out without hindrance from factious and seditious dissenters. It must be admitted that the Holy Roman emperors sometimes made use of their overwhelming power unscrupulously, and more than once candidates were elected to the papacy by direct imperial nomination. Otto III is credited with the nomination of Gregory V and Sylvester II, and Henry III with the effectual naming of Clement II, Damasus II, Leo IX , and Victor II. But it is obvious that such nomination is not real election, for the acceptance of the legal electors was necessary to ratify the choice, though undoubtedly they would naturally be swayed by circumstances to give effect to the imperial preference.
It has sometimes been said that in the earlier ages popes have appointed their successors in the pontificate. Thus, St. Peter is said to have so chosen Clement I. The authority on which the statement rests is now generally acknowledged to be apocryphal. Boniface II chose Vigilius for his successor in 531, but later repented and publicly withdrew the nomination. Baronius (H.E., ann. 1085, 1087) states that Gregory VII in 1085 elected Victor III as his successor; that Victor in like manner chose Urban II in 1086, and Urban elected Paschal II in 1099. It is to be noted that the canon "Si Transitus" in the "Corpus Juris" (can. "Si Tranc.", 10, dist. 70) seems to imply the right of the pope to nominate his successor, since its opening words are: "If the death of the pope take place so unexpectedly that he cannot make a decree concerning the election of his successor, etc.". However, these so-called elections were never more than nominations, for none of the persons thus named ever presumed to declare themselves popes before the ratification of the legal electors had been obtained.
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It is certain at present, that, according to ecclesiastical law (c. "Episcopo", 3; c. "Plerique", 5; can. "Moyses", 6, caus. 8, Q. 1), the pope cannot elect his successor. It is commonly held also that he is prohibited from doing so by Divine law, though the contrary has also been held by canonists. As to the gradual restrictions and determinations governing the mode of election of the pontiffs, we note that in 606 Boniface III decreed that the electors should not meet until the third day after the pope's burial. In 769 a decree was framed in a synod of the Lateran, that the Roman clergy were to choose as pope only a priest or deacon, and forbade the laity to take any part in the election. The newly-elected was, however, to receive the homage of the laity before he was conducted to the Lateran basilica. This decree caused widespread discontent among the influential laymen, and Nicholas I in a Roman Synod held in 862 restored the right of suffrage to the Roman nobles. John IX in 898 confirmed the custom of having the consecration of the new pontiff take place in the presence of the imperial ambassadors. In 963, the Emperor Otto I endeavoured to bind the Romans by oath not to elect anyone as pope until he had been nominated by the emperor.
An epoch-making decree in the matter of papal elections is that of Nicholas II in 1059. According to this constitution, the cardinal bishops are first to meet and discuss the candidates for the papacy, and select the names of the most worthy. They are then to summon the other cardinals and, together with them, proceed to an election. Finally, the assent of the rest of the clergy and the laity to the result of the suffrage is to be sought. The choice is to be made from the Roman Clergy, unless a fit candidate cannot be found among them. In the election regard is to be had for the rights of the Holy Roman emperor, who in turn is to be requested to show similar respect for the Apostolic See. In case the election cannot be held in Rome, it can validly be held elsewhere. What the imperial rights are is not explicitly stated in the decree, but it seems plain from contemporary evidence that they require the results of the election to be forwarded to the emperor by letter or messenger, in order that he may assure himself of the validity of the election. Gregory VII (1073), however, was the last pope who asked for imperial confirmation. It will be seen that the decree of Pope Nicholas reserves the actual election to the cardinals, but requires the assent ( laudatio ) of the lower clergy and laity.
The Tenth Ecumenical Synod (Lateran) in 1139 restricted, however, the entire choice to the cardinals, and in 1179, another Lateran Council under Alexander III made the rule that the pope is to be chosen by a two-thirds majority of the electors who are present. This last decree did not state what was to be done in case such a majority could not be obtained. When the cardinals found themselves face to face with this contingency on the death of Clement IV in 1268, they commissioned six cardinals as plenipotentiaries to decide on a candidate. The vacancy of the Holy See had lasted for two years and nine months. To prevent a recurrence of this evil, the Second Council of Lyons under Gregory X (1274) decreed that ten days after the pope's decease, the cardinals should assemble in the palace in the city in which the pope died, and there hold their electoral meetings, entirely shut out from all outside influences. If they did not come to an agreement on a candidate in three days, their victuals were to lessened, and after a further delay of five days, the food supply was to be still further restricted. This is the origin of conclaves.
The decretal of Gregory X on this subject is called "Ubi periculum majus". For the later regulations governing papal elections see CONCLAVE. According to certain ancient canons (can. "Oportet", 3; can. "Nullus", 4, dist. 79), only cardinals should be chosen pope. However, Alexander III decreed (cap. "Licet", 6, "De elect.") that "he, without any exception, is to be acknowledged as pontiff of the Universal Church who has been elected by two-thirds of the cardinals." As late as 1378, Urban VI was chosen, though not a cardinal (consult, however, Constitut. 50 of Sixtus V "Postquam", § 2). A layman may also be elected pope, as was Celestine V (1294). Even the election of a married man would not be invalid (c. "Qui uxorem", 19, caus. 33, Q. 5). Of course, the election of a heretic, schismatic, or female would be null and void. Immediately on the canonical election of a candidate and his acceptance, he is true pope and can exercise full and absolute jurisdiction over the whole Church. A papal election, therefore, needs no confirmation, as the pontiff has no superior on earth.