Papal Election and the Church as a Democracy. Why Not?


We’re frequently reminded that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. I’m curious though if she could ever in theory be a sort of quasi-democracy to the extent that the Pope is elected. The office of the Pope is of divine institution, but how the Church picks who fills that office seems to be a matter of reformable discipline. Historically Popes have been called by their predecessors, elected by the faithful of the city of Rome, elected by the Roman clergy (pre-Cardinalate), installed by imperial fiat, manipulated into office by Italian dynasties, and only recently elected by conclave.

Since the manner by which the Pope is selected is clearly not one of faith or morals (and therefore not irreformable), couldn’t the Church in theory amend canon law such that every confirmed Catholic is eligible to cast a ballot for a papal contender during a sede vacante? Once the Pope is named he is then in office until death or abdication just as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end, amen.

Is there some obscure dogma that I’m not aware of which would render this theoretically impossible?


Sure, but that still doesn’t make the dogma of the Church up for debate.

In American republican democracy, the citizens could repeal all of the Bill of Rights if we so chose.

However, for Catholics, life will always start in the womb.

Does that make sense?


This is utterly ridiculous. People are constantly contesting elections and results. The Universal Church voting would be an enormous and controversial undertaking! Accusations of fraud, interference, and rigging would be rampant. It would be an utter disaster!

It’s simply not possible.


Throughout the Bible, God has used Kings to rule over His people. It also makes sense He would use one to govern His church.


Yeah, no thanks. The Anglicans didn’t last long once they went that route. I’d rather not repeat their abysmal failure.


Agreed. I’m not speaking in terms of dogmatic decree or even church discipline! The only recourse the faithful would have to voting would be for the person of the Pope, and once he’s in, that’s it. He’s in for life (or until he abdicates).


yeah, but how?


I agree that barring some real genius coming forward and proposing an elegant way for this to work with 1 billion plus voters scattered across the world, it’s quite unfeasible.

You haven’t actually demonstrated that it’s impossible, only that to the extent I’ve articulated it here it’s unfeasible.

There’s a reason I bolded “in theory” in the O.P. I’m curious about the possibility of this, not its feasibility.

I actually think having the faithful elect the Pope is a horrible idea! At least so long as we have such a huge number of confirmed Catholics who don’t even attend Mass and/or are woefully ignorant of what the Church teaches. Heck, I don’t even have much confidence in many of the Cardinal electors who do have the power to elect the Pope!


How does this apply to my O.P? I’m not asking about getting rid of the Petrine Office (the actual monarch of the Church).


The Anglicans did what? Open up the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all faithful Anglicans?


I may have misunderstood it, sorry!


They essentially allow the Anglican populous to vote on matters of doctrine. That’s why they allowed contraceptives, and then abortion, and now women priests and bishops, etc. etc…


Perhaps I didn’t word my O.P. well, and for that I apologize. Allow me to elaborate:

  1. I’m asking a hypothetical/theoretical question
  2. As to whether it is possible (not necessarily feasible)
  3. that the Church open up the election of the Supreme Pontiff to all of the faithful,
  4. who once elected would reign as supreme legislator of the Church Militant just as he does now.
  5. This would not in any way shape or form extend to the definition of doctrine. That would still, by virtue of the divine institution of the Petrine See be reserved to His Holiness the Pope, and his brother Bishops in Ecumenical Council validly ratified by a validly elected Pope.


The method of papal election could be changed. Every Catholic in the world voting? That is certainly not going to happen.


But it’s theoretically possible, and not prohibited by some dogma of the faith that I’m unaware of?


Ah, well, I’m not sure, but logistical problems aside, when Matthias replaced Judas, he was voted in by bishops, not the whole Church. If bishops choose bishops, I’d think the same thing would go for the Pope.


It would be essentially the same thing. Look at American elections. People would vote for liberal bishops who match the current ideologies of the age, and then that pope would be in charge of shaping the Church according to his understanding of doctrine. We could get one of these nutter German bishops as a Pope because people like the idea of communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

In short, no, I don’t believe there is any situation in which this is conceivable. There average Catholic is not guided by the Holy Spirit, apparently most Catholics don’t even pray every day. It would be a terrible idea.


@AlbertDerGrosse , the Pope is first and foremost Bishop of Roman .

If he were to be elected democratically it would seem only right to me that the people of the Diocese of Rome be the electors .

And this would not be something new .

St. Cyprian tells us in regard to the election of Pope St. Cornelius (251) that the comprovincial bishops, the clergy, and the people all took part in it: “He was made bishop by the decree of God and of His Church, by the testimony of nearly all the clergy, by the college of aged bishops [sacerdotum], and of good men”


Sounds like an awful idea. The general public makes terrible decisions.


And that’s my point. As I mentioned in the O.P. prior Popes have been put into office a number of ways, including election by the faithful. This was a practice that didn’t really extend further than the first couple of centuries though, and I wasn’t sure if in 1700+ years since the Church hasn’t developed her doctrine in such a way that an election including the faithful (whether of Rome only or of the whole world) would be deemed an actual impossibility.

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