Verifying Cardinals' Identities as the enter Conclaves


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.


Man you’re on a conspiracy theory trip here. What would be achieved by kidnapping a Cardinal for the duration of a Papal Election? He’d have to be let go some time and then the cover would be blown.

In any event one or two votes isn’t going to change the course of a Papal election and there’s no way that it could be managed for more than one or two Cardinals.

And what makes you think VIPs aren’t asked to verify their identity? You think no-one’s had the same idea as you? Of course they have to verify their identity at times. And there are ways - make 'em sign in and compare signatures (it’d be a million to one shot to find a look alike who was also a write-alike), use voice identification (all the Cardinals make speeches all the time and all would have their voices on record), take fingerprints, ask questions that only the real person would know…

Put it this way - they’ve been running these elections for quite some time now, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.


I remember hearing one priest in London saying he was with the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster’s retinue at the last conclave, so they don’t travel alone, and the priests with them definitely know who they are, because they work in the diocese, if not in the cathedral staff itself. Many, I would imagine, would arrive for the Papal funeral, and there would be a great number of clergy and other important dignitaries from their own countries around, who’d know exactly who they were.

Also, the Swiss Guards don’t just stand around in fancy uniforms, they’re all ex-military, many of them with many years of high-level work with international security contractors behind them. They are a serious police force, and will, I’m sure, have some serious intelligence training among them.

As for the Cardinal who was hard of hearing at JPII’s election, are you sure that you’re not mistaking real life for the movie ‘the Pope must die’ with Robbie Coltraine? lol


Excuse me, but I don’t appreciate your tone. Did you even completely read the post?

VIPs, when going into VIP sessions, are usually not asked for identification. My grandfather was Philippine Ambassador to the UN. He was a congressman, as were two of my uncles. My father was also a politician. I am a political operative myself and I used to be employed by a man who did Public Relations for two heads of state. I have experience and I’m not stupid. So park the attitude.

Did I say that this is a viable possibility for usurpers to take Cardinals over? No. What I said was the complete opposite, and I stressed that in my original post more than once.

I know they have regulations in place and that they know what they’re doing, which is why I’m asking what, if anything, is done about this. As I said, I did my thesis on Conclaves and the rules, and I noted how the rules work to cover every foreseeable possibility.

I did not ask for your speculation. I asked what procedures were in place.

Until you learn to read properly and be polite, please don’t participate in this thread that I started.



Thanks, you’re very helpful, unlike LilyM.

The Swiss Guards argument is good. Plus they have the Italian police, who are bound by the Lateran Treaty to assist, and they would be more advanced in intelligence too.

But, about that Cardinal who couldn’t hear well, it’s a true story. The Cardinal was Mario Casariego of Guatemala.


If someone were to go to the trouble of impersonating a cardinal, they’d probably practice forging his signature.

[quote=LilyM]use voice identification (all the Cardinals make speeches all the time and all would have their voices on record), take fingerprints, ask questions that only the real person would know

These seem like good ideas, but it’s not clear they are actually used in practice.

I think the main safeguard is the familiarity cardinals have with each other, and with other clergy, the press, etc. So if one were trying to infiltrate, the best bet would be to impersonate a cardinal who doesn’t speak much English, Spanish, Italian, German, etc and thus wouldn’t be expected to hang out with colleagues, or talk with them much while in Rome. This would of course limit one’s influence if the purpose was to sway the conclave. If the purpose was merely to crash the party, or commit some more specific crime, it might be sufficient.

Alternatively, a newly appointed cardinal from an obscure part of the world could be plausible. A newly-appointed cardinal from say North Korea or Myanmar wouldn’t be familiar to other cardinals, although at least in the case of the Korean he had better be familiar enough with home events to talk at length with his South Korean colleague.


Actually your opening post is not simply asking about the procedures. You speculate on what might happen if a usurper gains entry. You say it could be a problem. You bring up the subject of a conspiracy so I think your comments to LilyM are a bit harsh.
Her point is simply why would anyone bother because it would not affect the outcome of electing a Pope.


I’m almost positive that they use the secret decoder ring the Pope gives each of them upon appointing them as Cardinals in order to identify the imposters. :wink:

Peace and God bless!


I’m all for secret decoder rings as long as their hands aren’t microchipped or anything :eek:


Ah, but from such silly notions, best sellers arise. Excuse me while I fire up my word processor…

Seriously, while I also think this is highly unlikely, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility. What of the bishops in hostile countries that were incardinated (sp?) “in the Pope’s heart”, i.e., in secret for their own safety? What if – miracle of miracles – the Chinese government let one (or all) of the Roman Catholic cardinals leave to attend the conclave? (I’m not talking about those that belong to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.) How does one go about verifying THEIR identity?

There’s a reason why the Vatican has one of the best intelligence gathering operations in the world.

I recall reading a book where one of the cardinals had been forced by his government to wear a rather large and ornate cross, which he was in the habit of tapping. Turned out he had been transmitting information outside the conclave using the the cross. Nowadays, twenty years later, it would be simple to fix the cross with a cell phone, allowing the compromised cardinal to receive instructions from his masters. Yeah, I can imagine the head of the Swiss Guards having more than a few sleepless nights over these questions.

(BTW, for the Americans on this list who think the Swiss Guards only dress in the funny uniforms: The Swiss Guards are a combination of the Secret Service Protective Services and a Special Forces team. For every one of those fancy-dressed guards you see on display, I’ll wager there are at least two in the crowd, being unobtrusive in a well-dressed sort of way. Here’s a link to an article that explains in more detail their history and what they do.)


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