Claims of an invalid election don’t wash. Part II of a series.
By John Trungove
Liberal supporters of the Pope Francis papacy claim that, on the side of what they have dubbed the “traditionalist resistance”, there are those who have sought to question the Pope’s legitimacy. There is some truth in that.
If these “trad” oppositionists cannot establish that the resignation of Benedict XVI was invalid, they turn to disputing the validity of the election of his successor, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio.
The main focus of the challengers to the legitimacy of Pope Francis is the reputed shenanigans before and during the Conclave of March 2013. There are two limbs to the case of the doubters; one the open admissions of members of the so-called St Gallen Mafia and the other a fanciful interpretation of the constitutional process for electing a new Pope.
It is relatively uncontroversial that a number of clerics grouped together in an informal association between 1995 and 2006, united by opposition to the prevailing conservatism under Pope John Paul II and in particular hostility to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The objectives of the group were to promote a liberal agenda within the Church, expanded collegiality – a greater say for local bishops over the direction taken by a global Church – and to work for the election of an alternative to Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope following the eventual death of Pope John Paul.
The St Gallen group was led by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the late Jesuit Archbishop of Milan, and the Bishop of St Gallen, Switzerland, Ivo Fürer, who hosted the discussions. Cardinal members of the group included Godfried Danneels, Walter Kasper, Achille Silvestrini, Karl Lehmann, Basil Hume, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Lubomyr Husar and José Policarpo.
These Cardinals worked unsuccessfully at the 2005 Conclave to prevent the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Their reported nominee was Cardinal Bergoglio, who was widely said to have finished second in the final ballots to Ratzinger.
Following the failure of the group to get their man elected Pope, its members stopped meeting in 2006. It took the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict in 2013 for the band to get back together.
According to Pope Francis’ sympathetic biographer, Austen Ivereigh, four of the surviving cardinals from the St Gallen group (Danneels, Kasper, Murphy-O’Connor and Lehmann) worked assiduously before and during the 2013 Conclave to get Cardinal Bergoglio elected Pope, this time with success.
Whatever the truth of this claim, Cardinal Danneels was accorded a place of honour on the papal balcony at the new Pope’s first public appearance. A book written by Cardinal Kasper was praised by the new Pope a few days after his election and the Cardinal was noted for his prominence and radical propositions during what became known as the two Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015, leading to the controversial exhortation Amoris Laetitia. That particular document is said by some to have opened the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion without obtaining an annulment of a previous marriage – something clearly prohibited in Church teaching over two millennia and most recently by Pope John Paul II.
The document governing the election of a new Pope is Universi Dominici Gregis (UDG), an Apostolic Constitution promulgated by St John Paul II in 1996. Benedict XVI made relatively minor revisions to this document in 2007 and again in February 2013, shortly before his resignation took effect.
The principal objection raised by those who challenge the validity of the election of Pope Francis is that the St Gallen mafiosi, together with sundry other unnamed Cardinals, including perhaps even Cardinal Bergoglio himself, conspired “during the Pope’s lifetime … to make plans concerning the election of his successor, or to promise votes, or to make decisions in this regard in private gatherings” (UDG 79).
The charges against the alleged conspirators extend to violation of the prohibition against “any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons”, other than “the exchange of views concerning the election”, “during the period in which the See is vacant” (UDG 81).
Whatever the counsels of the electors supporting Cardinal Bergoglio, their actions say more about what they wanted from the new pontificate than demonstrating any irregularity in the election.
Universi Dominici Gregis laid down severe penalties for breaches of these and other prohibitions, including automatic excommunication. However, nothing in the document provided for the invalidation of any election involving violations of the two paragraphs cited above.
No matter what the alleged conspirators may have claimed or is attributed to them, asserting that their actions invalidated the election of Pope Francis is drawing a very long bow.
According to the respected canon lawyer, Dr Edward Peters, Of the Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit, and Referendary, Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, Rome, anyone violating UDG 79, while incurring automatic excommunication, yet continuing to participate in the Conclave and voting, or even accepting election as Pope, would be acting illicitly but still validly, as the penalty of excommunication has not been formally declared. Peters cites the Code of Canon Law (can. 1331) in support of the requirement that the excommunication be formal before ecclesiastical acts are invalid.
Another objection to the election of Bergoglio relates to supposed irregularity in ballotting or in holding a fifth ballot on the second day of the Conclave, when a mistake was discovered in tallying the number of ballot papers issued. Peters also dismisses this objection, while considering it fully. He noted that the meaning of the prohibition on carrying out the election “in any other way” from that specified in UDG, is to be construed as referring to a fundamental requirement such as the need for a two-thirds majority for a valid election.
Peters argues that handling a mechanical issue such as a minor discrepancy in ballotting, was within the competence of the College of Cardinals, who addressed and ruled on the question, determining that an additional ballot was necessary.
Whatever the counsels of the electors supporting the election of Cardinal Bergoglio, their actions say more about what they wanted from the new pontificate and the men surrounding the new Pope than demonstrating any irregularity in the election. It is not the first time that elements among the College of Cardinals have attempted successfully to subvert a Conclave and place a less than ideal candidate on the Chair of Peter.
Plotting and scheming for the next Conclave during the previous pontificate would certainly violate the governing constitutions. However, the alleged conspirators did not seem too reluctant to be identified with the St Gallen group and its activities, despite formal denials by the four Cardinals named by Ivereigh. Indeed, so much of what was attributed to the group in the 2013 Conclave could easily fall within the broad confines of exchanges of views during a vacancy of the Apostolic See.
In any event, the body that would be competent to rule on any issue surrounding the validity of a papal election is the College of Cardinals itself. The silence from Cardinals on any irregularity is deafening. The entire College acclaimed the new Pope, after which any protest is futile.
Whatever is said about the validity of the resignation of Benedict and the election of Francis, there is one curious footnote. Every new Cardinal created by Pope Francis has been taken, after the consistory, to meet and receive the blessing of the Pope Emeritus. Perhaps Francis is hedging his bets after all!
Next up: Bergoglio – the bungled discernment