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Did the Holy Father violate the obligations of conclave secrecy? Yes and no…..

Did the Holy Father violate the obligations of conclave secrecy? Yes and no…..

In an interview book released in Spanish, Pope Francis revealed details, including voting results, from the 2005 conclave. Did the Holy Father violate the obligations of conclave secrecy?

Yes and No. It’s an issue that sheds light on a wider issue in the Church, namely, the limits of law on papal power.

Pope Francis revealed that “Ratzinger was my candidate” in 2005, but that there was group attempting a “complete maneuver,” in which votes for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would block Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“They were using me, but behind them they were already thinking about proposing another cardinal. They still couldn’t agree on who, but they were already on the verge of throwing out a name,” Pope Francis told Spanish journalist Javier Martínez-Brocal for the book The Successor. Excerpts were published by the Spanish newspaper ABC on Easter Sunday. The book has not been released in English.

Regarding the strict confidentiality of what goes on in a conclave, Pope Francis said that while cardinals are sworn to secrecy regarding conclave proceedings, “the popes have license to tell it.”

Is that correct? Or is it a version of what former president Richard Nixon infamously told British television host David Frost, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal”?

The conclave is governed by the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, promulgated in 1996 by St. John Paul II and amended by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and 2013. Regarding secrecy, the cardinals in the conclave must swear the following oath:

“In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting; we promise and swear not to break this secret in any way, either during or after the election of the new Pontiff, unless explicit authorization is granted by the same Pontiff …” (53)

It would thus seem that Cardinal Bergoglio, who took the oath in 2005, swore not to “break this secret in any way, either during or after the election.” The only permission to do so would have to come from the “new Pontiff,” namely Benedict XVI. Thus, given his comments in The Successor, the reader must assume that Pope Francis got “explicit authorization” from Benedict at some point after the 2005 conclave.

The text of Paragraph 53 makes it clear that it is the “new Pontiff” who can grant authorization about the conclave in which he was elected. Thus Pope Francis is right that he “has license” to speak about the 2013 conclave in which he was elected. But about 2005, he does not, on a plain reading of Paragraph 53, unless he got authorization from Benedict.

It would be unremarkable if Benedict did give that authorization. The anomaly of the “two popes” may well have led Benedict to grant Francis authority to speak about the conclave of 2005 in addition to the right he already had to speak about the 2013 conclave. One can easily imagine a situation in which a reigning pope may wish to discuss something about a prior conclave that is relevant to a matter at hand.

In the case of authorization from Benedict, it would have been helpful if The Successor made that more clear.

What if there was no “explicit authorization,” though? St. John Paul’s constitution includes this:

“I further order the Cardinal electors, graviter onerata ipsorum conscientia, to maintain secrecy concerning these matters also after the election of the new Pope has taken place, and I remind them that it is not licit to break the secret in any way unless a special and explicit permission has been granted by the Pope himself” (60).

That paragraph suggests that “the Pope,” pure and simple, can grant permission — to himself or others. There is no reference to the “same Pontiff,” as appeared in Paragraph 53. So it can be read that the pope can authorize any elector to speak about any conclave. Thus, for example, John Paul could have authorized an elector to speak not only about the October 1978 conclave in which he was elected, but also the August 1978 conclave that elected Blessed John Paul I.

John Paul never spoke about voting results in the October 1978 conclave, but he did relate two details. First, that, during the voting, Cardinal Maximilien de Fürstenberg, former rector of the Belgian College where a young Father Karol Wojtyła had stayed, approached him to say, “Magister adest et vocat te” — “The Teacher is here and calling you” (John 11:28). Second, that Blessed Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland, told him, “If you are elected, you must take the Church into the third millennium.”

In the case of Pope Francis, it is safe to consider that his revelations about the conclave of 2005 were lawful.

A related issue arises: What if they were not? No one can judge the Roman pontiff, and he is the supreme legislator in the Church. Is it thus the case that it is impossible for a pope to break Church law?

The pope can change the law, but if he breaks it without changing it, then the act remains contrary to the law — even though no one is able to enforce it.

The matter has been raised recently because the Holy Father often concelebrates Mass without being vested appropriately for a concelebrant (he has not been the principal celebrant at a public Holy Mass for some time). Now, it is possible that Pope Francis has given authorization to change the law in this regard and not published it, so his liturgical practice would be lawful. The difficulty, though, with secret laws is that they appear to others to claim that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Analogies apply at the diocesan level, too. Canon law does provide for recourse against bishops acting contrary to law. In the moment, though, given that a bishop is “vicar of Christ” in his diocese, there is little anyone can do should he choose to act contrary to law. Recourse comes after and can be cumbersome and time-consuming. That issue has contributed in recent years to an erosion of trust between bishops and their priests.

The revelations in The Successor may be of greater or lesser interest. But it is safe to consider them legal. The Church does have a single supreme legislator and remains a society of laws.

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