This election is like no other because they are not, officially, deciding who amongst them is the best person to be Pope but are allowing God to tell them who he has chosen. They don't decide by simple majority voting or even by an agreed majority like seventy-five or ninety percent; it has to be unanimous (but see update below). God sometimes has great difficulty getting his decision through because waiting for everyone to get the message often takes many days. The record is nearly three years ending on 1 September 1271 following the death of Pope Clement IV. During this period three cardinals died and one resigned. In the end, having been sealed in and having had their rations reduced to bread and water, and then the roof having been removed from the Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo where they were meeting, to force a decision, the sixteen surviving cardinals chose a sub-committee for God to reveal his message to, and they duly decided God had chosen Theoboldo Visconti to be Pope Gregory X. One can only assume God was having difficulty making Himself heard above the din of political in-fighting, back-stabbing and wheeler-dealing.
And that was with just twenty cardinals.
On this occasion, there are one hundred and fifteen cardinals, some of them not even white, but, because of the 'Viterbo' debacle, they are still sealed in and not allowed out until they have all
The cardinals have also sworn oaths of secrecy - something which has taken up a good deal of the day - to never reveal what was said by whom or how they or anyone else voted. Some might see a special irony in servants of Jesus swearing an oath, when he told them to do so was a sin, but I expect there is some good theology behind it.
Now, it might seem strange that the Word of God is revealed to the world by ballot but apparently there are secret votes every day, and usually two, until God has managed to get his message through. It seems not to be within God's powers any more to simply speak out of Heaven or appear as a burning bush, or in a whirlwind like he used to be able to.
But, having by this process discovered God's will, something magical happens: the Holy spirit instantaneously enters the chosen person and he becomes infallible (see Understanding Papal Infallibility) and able to act as a bridge or 'pontiff' between this world and Heaven, with a direct line to God on all matter moral and ecumenical, in fact, on all matters, since whether they are ecumenical matters depends on whether
This devise of having the Holy Spirit descend instantaneously (which incidentally means it travels faster than light, like kingship does when it passes instantaneously to the heir on the death of the monarch) was made necessary because of a rather strange fact. In theory, this Holy Spirit was given to Simon bar Jonah by Jesus when he nick-named him 'Peter' and said he was going to build his church on him. It is the same magical ingredient that the Pope passes on to the cardinals when he puts his hands on their head, and this in turn is passed on to bishops and ordinary priests and is the magic power they use to turn wafers and wine into Jesus with a few spells and special magic hand movements, so the faithful can eat him. However, because the Pope is either dead or has lost faith and chucked in the towel like Pope Benedict XVI did, there is no one to pass the magic on, so it has to come anew from God - which all renders the legendary 'Peter' redundant when you think about it.
Mind you, there is a lot of doubt about the authenticity of the claim that Jesus gave this magic ability to Peter, what with there being no actual evidence that Jesus ever existed or that he was the son of God with plenipotentiary powers to hand out special magic abilities, and in any case, 'Peter' probably means 'father' (possibly of the Roman sect) from the Greek 'Pater', not 'rock' from the Greek 'Petra' (I wonder how many other religions rely as heavily on misinterpretations as the Christian one seems to) and the high probability that the account in Matthew 16:16-18 was added later to boost the Bishop of Rome's claim to be the top boss of Christianity - a suspicion reinforced by the fact that, read properly with the hindsight of history, Matthew 16 makes Jesus out to be both a false prophet and a foolish man.
Because they are sealed in, their only means of communicating that they have
To me, the most outstanding and enjoyable feature of all this pomp and ceremony is the way the entire charade is based on mutual hostility and distrust at the top of the Catholic Church:
- The only reason they are sealed in is to stop details of deals being passed outside to backers and vested interests for approval and to stop a splinter-group forming and electing their own Pope as they did in 1305 when we ended up with two Popes, one based in Avignon, France and one in Rome. This followed an eight-month deadlocked enclave.
- The only reason everyone is sworn to secrecy is because they don't want outsiders hearing who voted for who, what was said, what deals were done, what promises were made (and broken), who stabbed who in the back, what arm-twisting went on, and who had what information on others he could use at the right time - while listening attentively for God's decision, obviously.
- The only reason the ballots are secret and the papers are burned immediately, is because no one wants anyone else to know what deals were reneged on, which loser came closest to winning, who had to be cajoled and bullied into relenting and going along with the majority, or what the price of the last to capitulate was. Like a tennis match, the game isn't over until the final point, then it's winner takes all. And because it was 'unanimous', and because the papers aren't even there to be counted, the evidence having been carefully destroyed, no one can later say, "I told you so!"
And the one who floats to the top of the cesspit gets to be Pope.
[Update 13 March 2013] It seems the conclave now accepts a two-thirds majority and that voting occurs up to four times a day. Presumably, God chooses to ignore the papers with Satanic votes on them when they are below a magic number and allows them to burn with a white smoke. It's reassuring to know that up to one-third of cardinals officially can't hear God's voice but go with Satan instead.
Press reports that the conclave is deadlocked between those who think the Catholic Church needs a radical overhaul from the top down and those who see nothing wrong with things as they are, are obviously mere speculation as no one is allowed to talk to anyone about what is going on because they have sworn an oath, drawn up by that distinguished lawyer, Solomon Binding, not to... allegedly.
[Further update]. In a breach with the tradition that God, with a couple of recent exceptions, normally chooses a white European male from Italy to be the next Pope, this time God chose a white European male from Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants to that country. Rumours of his cosy relationship with the Fascist Junta which ruled Argentina while he was progressing up his chosen career ladder seem to have had little sway with God, just as the Nazi Party membership of his predecessor wasn't considered a bar to him becoming God's official spokesperson.