How the Pope is Elected

March 18, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

In Roman Catholicism, the Pope - also known as: the Supreme Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and the Servant of the Servants of God - is the spiritual leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics worldwide. The period between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of the next is governed by complex and detailed procedures.

The meticulous nature of papal elections is by necessity, however, for over the course of the 2,000-year history of the papacy, the period after a pope's death or resignation has often been one of chaos, confusion and corruption. As with the death of an important emperor who has not designated a successor or even an ordinary family member who dies without a will, the importance of providing clear directions in advance is clear. The following article provides all the details on the process of electing a new pope, from the moment of the current pontiff's death or resignation to the moment a new pope is proclaimed to the waiting world.

After one of the longest pontificates in history, Pope John Paul II passed away on April 2, 2005 at 9:37 PM Vatican time. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. Following Pope Benedict's resignation, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the first pontiff from Latin America on March 13, 2013, taking the name Pope Francis.

Who Elects the Pope?

The current pope does not designate a successor nor is the pope elected by popular vote of all Catholics, although both of these methods have been used at various times in the past. {2} Instead, the pope is elected by 120 elector cardinals. Cardinals are bishops who are directly appointed by the pope at various points during his pontificate. Although they have many other jobs to keep them busy during a pope's (often lengthy) time in office, the primary role of cardinals is to elect the next pope. There are usually more than 120 cardinals at any one time, but not all are elector cardinals. Under current church law, cardinals must be under 80 years of age, of sound mind, and present in person at the elections to be eligible to vote.

Currently there are 184 cardinals, 121 of which are eligible to vote. {3} Pope John Paul II appointed 42 of these in 2001 and 26 more on October 21, 2003. Naturally, the pope chose cardinals who agree with him on issues that are important to him, so it is likely that under the next pope "we will see more continuity than change." {4} Currently, the cardinals who are eligible to vote hail from 54 different countries around the world. Sixty cardinals are from Europe (two from the U.K.), 18 are from North America (11 from the U.S.), 18 are from Central and South America, 12 are from Africa, 11 are from Asia, and two are from Oceania (one from Australia and one from New Zealand). {5}

The General Congregations of Cardinals

Shortly after a pope's death, the cardinals begin meeting once daily in General Congregations. All cardinal electors are required to attend these meetings. Cardinals who are ineligible to vote are also permitted to attend if they wish.

The purpose of the General Congregations is to take care of important business related to the pope's funeral and the election of the next pope. During the period between popes, the cardinals appear with uncovered rochets (a white tunic worn under the red robes) and canopies are placed over their seats in conclave (see below) to symbolize that supreme authority over the church temporarily rests in their hands.

As is customary, Pope John Paul II issued formal instructions regarding the procedures for electing his successor. These were included in the above-mentioned Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregisissued in 1996. The pontiff's instructions include the following oath to be taken by the cardinals at the first meeting of the General Congregations:

We, the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, of the Order of Bishops, of Priests and of Deacons, promise, pledge and swear, as a body and individually, to observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, and to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff or those which, by their very nature, during the vacancy of the Apostolic See, call for the same secrecy.