Election of the Bishop of Rome

We are always told that, hypothetically speaking, any baptized man can be lawfully elected by the conclave. This confuses me somewhat. Normally, the man elected is already a bishop. Thus, the moment he accepts the election, he immediately becomes the Bishop of Rome with all the authority that goes with that office. If, however, a man who is not a bishop is elected, he cannot, by definition, be the Bishop of Rome, and thus the Pope, until he is consecrated a bishop… yet, the Church has certain requirements for the lawful consecration of a bishop. He must be celibate, he must be at least 35, he must have a doctorate in theology or equivalent, etc. Do these requirements not apply in the case of the Bishop of Rome?
I remember this was discussed once years ago on this forum, and I do not remember the outcome, but someone said that the newly elected pope would simply dispense himself from those requirements in such a hypothetical scenario. But if the “Pope-elect” is not yet a bishop, and thus not yet Bishop of Rome, how can he dispense himself? That seems circular to me.

That’s a pretty good question. I’d guess that if the man has no other impediments to ordination, they’d try to give him a crash-course ordination (this actually happened with the one pope whose place in the line is in doubt – Pope-elect Steven [or Pope Steven II], who was validly elected, was not a bishop, but died before he could be ordained, so there’s debate about whether he was actually Pope or not. Oddly enough, tomorrow’s the anniversary of his death).

I’ve got no idea what they’d do if he had canonical impediments to ordination (of course they’d have to have come to light after the election, I can’t imagine the Conclave electing someone who can’t legally fulfill the duties of the office without catastrophic reasons). My best guess is they’d have to start from scratch.

If the person elected is not already a Bishop, he shall immediately be ordained Bishop. (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff) , 88.)

But there’s also a very big difference: in the OP’s scenario there’s a question of “Should we ordain him, thus making him Pope, even though we would be violating canon law?” But once a man dies there’s no question of “Should we ordain him posthumously?”


…so the Church teaches that to become a Priest a man must make it through several years in higher ed, including philosophy and theology; yet, any Baptized man can just walk into the Vatican and demand his right to be elected as a Pope-candidate?

…how much of that organic stuff have they been ingesting?

Maran atha!


I don’t see how there could be any debate at all. How could he be considered a valid pope? The Pope is by definition a bishop. There is no fourth degree of holy orders. The conclave is not a sacrament (its only existed for half of Church history for that matter). I don’t understand what the basis of an argument could even be for a man being the true pope without being a bishop?

One or more of the bishops would have had to have consecrated him in secret before his death.

But if there isn’t any evidence that that ever happened then I would simply call him “Pope-elect”.

The effective canon is as follows. There are some procedures where if the person who consented is not a bishop, he shall be ordained immediately. I would imagine that if he is in the conclave, he will be ordained bishop by the Cardinal Dean before being presented to the people. If not within the conclave, I would imagine that it will be the Cardinal Dean to bring the message to him and ordain him bishop if required. Imagine the media circus that would follow the Cardinal Dean all over the world in such circumstances.

[quote=Can. 332 §1.] The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by his acceptance of legitimate election together with episcopal consecration. Therefore, a person elected to the supreme pontificate who is marked with episcopal character obtains this power from the moment of acceptance. If the person elected lacks episcopal character, however, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately.

However, I think the point you raised is interesting and is not covered by Canon Law as it practically is unlikely to happen today. Still canonically, it would be a question of whether the Canon above or the canons on episcopal qualifications take precedence. Canon Law as with any other body of legislation in the world is not perfect. Canons or more accurately, requirements for canonical adherence could conflict just as laws of a country often conflict. A decision would then be required on which law take precedence.

I am not a canon lawyer but I would imagine that the canon on papal elections would take precedence. It is more fundamental to the Church and more ancient. While bishops are fundamental to the Church, the qualifications are definitely not and are very changeable. Whereas the papal election if extremely fundamental to the Church. If I am not mistaken canon law before 1975 states that the Pope-elect assumes his authority from the moment of his acceptance, making it possible to have a Bishop of Rome who is not a bishop. Rules on papal elections are also more ancient as they date back to the election of the bishop of Rome even from the early days, though not necessarily in this form.

[quote=Can. 378]§1. In regard to the suitability of a candidate for the episcopacy, it is required that he is:

1/ outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question;

2/ of good reputation;

3/ at least thirty-Five years old;

4/ ordained to the presbyterate for at least Five years;

5/ in possession of a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred scripture, theology, or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least truly expert in the same disciplines.

§2. The definitive judgment concerning the suitability of the one to be promoted pertains to the Apostolic See.

Also, the above is the canon on episcopal qualifications. You can see that there is a get out of jail clause in §2. The Vatican exercises final judgement on an individual’s qualification to be bishop. The question again is whether the Vatican’s judgement can be effected during a sede vacante without a papal seal or whether such a seal can be applied retrospectively. Historically such nuances have never bothered the Church if the guidance of the Holy Spirit is clear. And if the cardinals ever have elect a non-bishop again, I think there would be more fundamental issues to deal with than such nuances, intriguing as they may be.

The canonical requirements for being a Bishop - or Pope - are mostly procedural requirements, and so can mostly be dispensed with if necessary.

I am sure there was a time in the past when a degree in theology was not a requirement to be a bishop, nor an age limit of 35. So I am sure that these are not so essential that there is literally no possibility of having a Pope who does not meet them.

The flip side of this scenario is, before the new pope is ordained to the episcopacy, would the old pope then be the bishop of Rome but not the pope? :hmmm:

You mean if the previous Pope is still alive but had abdicated, as happened with Pope Emeritus Benedict?
No, the Pope Emeritus ceased to be the reigning Pope / Bishop of Rome the moment he abdicated. The see of Rome was vacant until a new pope was elected. Bishop of Rome = Pope and Pope = Bishop of Rome.

P. S. I guess another way one could respond to the question is to say that, while interesting, it doesn’t really matter since we’ve never claimed that Canon Law is infallible. :slight_smile:

No. I presume that you are talking about a Pope who resigns his office. Any bishop may resign his office at any time. Procedures require the resignation to be accepted to by the Apostolic See except where it is the resignation of the Roman Pontiff (see below).

[quote=Canon 331 §2] If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.

I would presume that any instrument of resignation would be drafted very carefully for the Pontiff to resign from all his positions. I cannot imagine that the resignation would mention his resignation from the Papal Office but specifically exclude the Roman episcopal office.

[quote=Pope Benedict’s letter of resignation 10 Feb 2013]. … For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is. …

Unless I misunderstood your point.

Canon Law can only be changed by the Pope and he doesn’t need anyone else’s consent. Of course there are committees and commissions no doubt he would set up to look into matters and make recommendations.

True, though I’m not seeing the connection between that and this thread.

In modern times we have codified canon law and these codes are promulgated by the Pope. The ancient norm was for councils / synods to decree canon law…with, of course, papal ratification in the case of universal norms.

Its agreeing with the poster that brought up Canon law!

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