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Changes Needed in "Universi Dominici Gregis"

The Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” (UDG) was written by Pope John Paul II and promulgated on February 22 of 1996. It contains wise rules and procedures for electing the next Pope. However, it also has some weaknesses. This article is not intended to contest or to undermine the authority of that Apostolic Constitution, but rather to suggest ways that the Pope may emend its rules.

1. Location

UDG requires that the election occur in Vatican City. Of course, as the center of authority in the Church, this is the most fitting location for the election of the next Pope. However, what if some grave circumstance were to prevent this location from being used as the site of the election? What if, in a future election of the Pope, a war, or civil disorder, or natural disaster were to make it dangerous for the election to be held in Vatican City? The current rules do not permit an alternate location to be chosen by the Cardinals. And if the Cardinal electors were to choose another location, even if this was due to grave circumstances beyond their control, the validity of the election would be in doubt:
“Should the election take place in a way other than that prescribed in the present Constitution, or should the conditions laid down here not be observed, the election is for this very reason null and void, without any need for a declaration on the matter; consequently, it confers no right on the one elected.” (UDG, 76)
Therefore, UDG should be emended so as to give the Cardinals the ability to choose an alternate location, other than Vatican City, in case of war, or civil disorder, or natural disaster, or other grave circumstances beyond the control of the Cardinals.

2. The Number of Cardinal Electors

UDG states that the maximum number of Cardinal electors is one hundred and twenty. But the size of the College of Cardinals, and the number of Cardinals of voting age, has exceeded that number on occasion. In order to prevent an election from taking place that might be seen by some as invalid, the maximum number of Cardinal electors permitted should be clarified, or else the passage stating a maximum should be nullified.

3. Time Frame for the Election

Currently, UDG specifies that the election must begin no sooner than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the death or valid resignation of the Pope. What if the election was delayed due to some grave circumstance, such as war, or civil disorder, or natural disaster?
“I furthermore decree that, from the moment when the Apostolic See is lawfully vacant, the Cardinal electors who are present must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent; the College of Cardinals is also granted the faculty to defer, for serious reasons, the beginning of the election for a few days more. But when a maximum of twenty days have elapsed from the beginning of the vacancy of the See, all the Cardinal electors present are obliged to proceed to the election.” (UDG 37)
However, if the election were delayed for any reason beyond the 20th day, then there would be no way to hold the election as prescribed in UDG. How would we validly elect a Pope, if the validity depends on beginning the election by the 20th day and that day passes without it beginning? This internal conflict in the rules for electing the Pope must be corrected so that a valid election will always be possible, even if the Cardinals were to delay the election, whether for a good reason or not. The rules should never permit any circumstance to occur, even as a sheer possibility, that would prevent a valid election under such rules.

4. The Male-only Episcopate

In order to counter the influence that secular society sometimes has on members of the faithful, the document specifying the rules for electing the next Pope should include a clear doctrinal statement that the Pope must be male and ordained to the Episcopate (before or after his election), and that the Cardinal electors must each be male and ordained to the Episcopate. For the Sacrament of Ordination reaches its fullest extent only in those persons ordained as Bishops. And the Bishops of the Church have a special charism of guidance from the Holy Spirit, whenever they together make decision on matters pertaining to the whole Church.

The Church must not permit women or laypersons to usurp roles properly given only to men, or only to the ordained, or only to those ordained to the Episcopate. A woman cannot be validly ordained as a priest or a bishop, nor can any woman be validly elected as Supreme Pontiff. Any document that clarifies the rules for electing the Pope ought to also clarify or reaffirm this point of doctrine.

5. Living Will Clause

Currently, the Apostolic See can only become vacant through the death or valid resignation of the Pope. If the Pope gives his free consent to this clause, the following clause should be added to the Apostolic Constitution. The Pope shall be considered to have validly and permanently resigned as Supreme Pontiff, in the entirety of his authority and primacy as Supreme Pontiff, if he is completely unable to express his will to the Church for forty-one or more consecutive full calendar days, due to severe illness or injury, or due to his capture, imprisonment, and isolation during a time of war.

For example, if the Pope were to become unconscious anytime on December 31, by the date and time of the city of Rome, then the first full calendar day would be January 1st, and the 41st calendar day would be February 10th. In this example, if the Pope then recovered his ability to express his will to the Church, in any way, shape, or form, even if only by the briefest sound or signal, anytime before February 11th, then he would retain his full role as Supreme Pontiff, uninterrupted. But, in this same example, if he were to continue, from the whole of January 1st, through the whole of February 10th, and into any part of February 11th, he would, at the start of February 11th, cease to be the Roman Pontiff, by means of this clause to which he himself had validly consented. These dates are merely examples, such that any 41 consecutive full calendar days would satisfy the required time length.

Any subsequent Pope certainly has the power to change or nullify this clause at his discretion. For this reason, his choice to leave this clause intact constitutes a valid and sufficient expression of his consent to the clause.

If the Pope were to recover his ability to express his will to the Church on or before the forty-first full calendar day, he would retain his role as Roman Pontiff, uninterrupted. If the Pope were to recover his ability to express his will to the Church on or after the forty-second full calendar day, he would not be Pope and the election of the next Pope would continue, even if he opposes it. (Otherwise, the Cardinals might unduly delay the election of the next Pope, hoping that he would recover, thus leaving the Church without a Pope for too long.) The Cardinal electors may re-elect the same man as Pope, if he has recovered his ability to express his will before or during the election.


In general, the rules for electing the Pope should permit, in any and all circumstances, the Cardinal electors to vary from the letter, but not the spirit, of the rules themselves, in order to prevent a papal election from being invalid or from having the appearance of being invalid.

The validity of the papal election should be based on only a few general and essential principles; the detailed rules of the papal election should be subject to emendation for any just cause, as agreed upon by the Cardinals. UDG should be emended so that, even if the Cardinals were to vary from these rules unwisely, the election would still be valid.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
(completed June 1, 2005; published October 3, 2005)

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