Why the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals


I understand for the most part the biblical basis of Papal Succession, but I don’t understand why the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals. It seems to me from Matthew 16:18 and from the very phrase “Papal Succession” that the Pope himself should have the power to pick his successor. If Christ wanted the Pope to be elected the way he is, wouldn’t He have specifically given the other apostles the power to elect St. Peter’s successor?


He did grant the Apostles the power to choose a new Apostle, as they did with Matthias. Christ did not leave a specific manual for the Church to follow. Some things have to be developed prayerfully. A bishop choosing his own successor would not be a good system. I believe that early bishops were elected by the clergy and laity. Rome developed a complex and lengthy practice where the clergy, laity, and cardinals voted separately and had to agree. Eventually the vote was limited to the cardinals to simplify.


Since the apostles have been choosing Saint Peter’s successor from the beginning it is quite likely that they received instruction on this and other “administrational” functions from Jesus himself. They spent 3 years learning from Him before the crucifixion and another 40 days after. Obviously there was much said and taught other than the Lord’s words that were recorded in the bible. So it is quite likely He did give them this power and authority and as the Cardinals are the successors of the Apostles they carry it on.


The normal ways to pick bishops and popes:

  1. Hold a council, draw lots.

  2. Voice vote of all the local Christians in town. (Bonus points if the candidate is some smart holy guy just passing through, and you make him stay forever! Mwahaha!)

  3. Bishop actually manages to get to old age, and he tells everybody that he needs a helper, and then they grab some smart holy guy just passing through and make him an auxiliary bishop so he can never leave again, and so he can become the main bishop when the old geezer bishop dies. (This is the way St. Augustine was made bishop. Kinda controversial, though, because it’s really supposed to be one town, one bishop. Gets used a fair amount today, though.)

  4. Vote by the monks of a monastery, or the priests of a deanery/bishopric.

  5. Appointment by a king, or really heavy hint-dropping and goodies to the voters. (Special points if the fixer isn’t a king or a churchman.)

  6. Secret ballot of cardinals to avoid all those riots and foreign soldier invasions they used to have during Roman elections for Pope.


This thread is titled “Why the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals”. There is no question mark, so I wonder is its purpose to say how popes are elected. An interesting topic might be a question as to how a pope should be chosen.

The system we have now developed over hundreds of years and changes frequently. Now cardinals aged over 85 do not have a vote. This was not always the case.

I take it that the Holy Spirit influences the choice no matter what way it is done; also some disastrous choices have been made.

I see “For 900 years, electing a pope has been the prerogative of the College of Cardinals meeting in conclave. The cardinals meet in Rome 15 to 20 days after the death of a pope and pick a successor from among themselves in secret balloting. Pope John Paul II wrote the rules for electing his successor” (catholic.org/pope/elect.php).

So a pope can decide how a new pope is picked. Is this the best way, guided by the Holy Spirit?

Two key texts are Mt 18:18:
“Truly I tell you (the disciples, the followers of Jesus, the Church ???), whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Also Mt 16:19:
“I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

So in one case does it seems the Church is given the power to pick a pope and in the other the pope is given this power?

I would love to hear other views.


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