Pope Q&A: How Pontiffs Are Picked

by
Owen Poindexter
Who qualifies to be pope, and how is the pope picked? Answers to those questions and more are all in our pope Q&A.

Got pope questions? We have pope answers. Here is papacy 101 in a nutshell:
 
Who picks the pope?
The College of Cardinals. The college consists of no more and no less than all the cardinals in the Catholic Church. Voting members must be under the age of 80. There are currently 115 voting cardinals, meaning that to reach the two-thirds majority required to select a pope, one person must get 77 votes.
 
Who qualifies to be pope?
Any Roman Catholic male is technically eligible to pope, but since 1379, the pope has come exclusively from the College of Cardinals. Nepotism? Maybe, but they're probably the most qualified as well. That's a pope 202 question, this is pope 101.
 
How does the vote actually happen?
So, a bunch of people gather on a really cold day in a high school gym in Iowa and...wait never mind, that's how we pick the president, not the pope. The pope vote is awesome (inspires some amount of awe), and it goes like this: the cardinals gather in, not a high school gym in Iowa but the Sistene Chapel! Quite the upgrade, no? Each cardinal is given a piece of paper with the words "Eligo in Summen Pontificem" (Latin for "I elect as supreme pontiff"), under which they write their selection for the next pope. They cannot vote for themselves. THEN, they fold their papers and place them in a chalice, which stands on an alter, voting in order of seniority.
 
What happens if no pope wins?
Election requires two-thirds of the cardinals to select you as supreme pontiff. That didn't happen today. This results in black smoke rising from the papal conclave and more votes the next day. There can be up to four votes a day for the next three days. If we still don't have a pope on day 5, day 5 is taken for rest and prayer (and backroom deals?). Then it's back to voting.
 
What's with the smoke?
Most of the fuel for that smoke is the ballots themselves. If no pope has been selected, a chemical is added to make the smoke black or white. What chemical? Like all things pope, this is shrouded in secrecy, but Ben Baxter, a smoke machine supplier, speculates it's potassium chlorate.
 
Will we get a non-European pope?
Possibly! Popes have been overwhelmingly European and mostly Italian. The top candidates for the next pope do include several Italians, but there has been talk of shaking things up. Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada would provide a nominal change, while others, such as Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina or Cardinal Odilo Sherer of Brazil would bring a more notable change to the papacy.
 
Will the next pope address the widespread molestation scandal rocking the Catholic church?
We can only hope. Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the problem, but didn't take bold steps to address it. This is not the only issue relevant to the next pope, but it's not going away by itself.
 
What other issues are focal for the next pope?

They are generally predictable: gay marriage, whether or not to endorse contraceptives, how to reach the next generation of Catholics, and what his central message to the world's Catholics (and anyone else who is listening) will be.

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