Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI greets the world as pope (Getty)

By Giulia Segreti in Rome

Since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down on February 28, saying he was now “simply a pilgrim who is starting the last stretch of his pilgrimage on this earth”, the Catholic Church has been in a state of sede vacante, literally “vacant seat”. The cardinals are gathering in Rome to elect a new pope; here is how they will do it.

When will the next pope be elected? A date for the beginning of the conclave of cardinals, when the election process begins, has not been chosen by the college of cardinals. However, one of Benedict’s last decrees means they can bring the election forward and break the usual rule of having a minimum of 15 days after a pope dies or leaves office provided all the cardinals who can vote have gathered. So they could start any day now.

Who gets to choose? Only cardinals, or “princes of the church”, and not all of them. There are at present 210 members of the college of cardinals but only those under the age of 80 on the first day of the sede vacante can pick a pope, which whittles it down to 115. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic and only elector, opted to not join the conclave following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour and his decision to resign as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Because of old age and an inability to reach Rome, Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, from Indonesia, will not be entering the conclave, either. Read more

 Read more

In a word, yes. The news that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down at the end of February has taken many people by surprise, but the Code of Canon Law (the Catholic Church’s collection of rules and procedures) does allow for papal resignation:

“If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” (From Book II, Part II, Section I, Cann. 330 – 367)

Pope John Paul II explicitly referenced this right in 1996, when he set out his new rules for papal election:

3. I further establish that the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church… even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope.

Precedents: We asked Professor David d’Avray, an expert on religious history at University College London, to tell us about precedents for papal resignation. He picked out two particularly interesting examples: Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415 (who we think was the last pope to resign until today’s announcement). Read more