This is a silly question, but I feel I need to ask this.
When the Cardinals enter into Conclave, how do they verify their identities? Though this is extremely unlikely, what if a usurper comes in to impersonate a Cardinal and tries to gain entrance?
I know how ridiculous this sounds, but I did my Senior Thesis on the policies of conclaves, and it does seem as if this could be a problem. I have learnt about the lengths that the Vatican goes through to ensure that the Interregnum goes through smoothly. The many regulations imposed by John Paul II work to make sure that nothing scandalous can happen that would call the validity of an election into question. They try to fill every foreseeable hole, even holes that seem extremely unlikely. Like, the Cardinals today are holy men and are extremely unlikely to try to steal the Papacy. But, for argument’s sake, what if someone were to pose as a Cardinal (with, of course, the real Cardinal stashed away some place)?
It sounds stupid, but in today’s world, the Cardinals don’t know each other that well. Vatican journalist John Allen writes that they often learn about each other through the media. The foreign ones who administer their own dioceses might not make it to Rome very often.
In the second Conclave of 1978, one Cardinal-elector was hard of hearing; when the other Cardinals told him about Cardinal Wojtyla being a good candidate, he said really loudly, “Who’s Boteewah?” Wojtyla happened to be passing by and overheard it; after the election finished and the Cardinals were giving homage to the new Pope, he said to that Cardinal, “Now you know who Boteewah is!” As cute a story as that is, it shows that the Cardinals don’t all know each other like the way it was before the College was expanded to over 70 electors.
Though this scenario is not going to happen, it certainly may be a possibility: The Cardinals take planes and trains to the Conclave when they learn the Pope died, and they send word to Rome that they are coming. Say that there is a conspiracy and a look-alike of a Cardinal is on board the plane or train, and the conspirators overtake the Cardinal, bind him where he wouldn’t be able to get out, and have the look-alike go in his place. Upon entering the Conclave, will they be able to tell if he’s a fake? I can’t imagine asking a Prince of the Church for his driver’s license. I mean, they do drive, but one just doesn’t ask a VIP for identification. And even if he did have his driver’s license to show, he’s a look-alike.
I know that Cardinals travel with their assistants, and the assistants would of course be able to spot if something has gone afoul, but in the above scenario, what if the conspirators also took the assistants over? They don’t have to be look-alikes for that, and the cardinal-imposter could just claim that he just hired them or something.
Now, I’m not asking about this because I’m pointing any fingers. I really do know this is a silly notion, but I also know some readers out there might accuse that I’m one of those insufferable loud-mouths who complains about everything regarding the Church. This just isn’t so. I’m more concerned about learning solutions for security vulnerabilities like these.
The validity of the election potentially could be at stake. If the winning candidate has just enough votes to reach the 2/3 threshold, and it were discovered later that one of the electors were an imposter, it might give the people some doubt about the Pope. The Avignon schism began when only 13 Cardinals revolted; you don’t need a big number to screw things up.