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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 165-181

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"I Will Observe Absolute and Perpetual Secrecy:"
The Historical Background of the Rigid Secrecy Found in Papal Elections

Frederic J. Baumgartner

The title of this address is taken from the oath that cardinals participating in the next papal election will swear repeatedly in the course of a conclave. The oath is found in Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution on papal elections published in 1996.1 It is an oath that all others—secretaries, physicians, confessors, and housekeepers—who are present within the precincts of the conclave also swear under pain of excommunication. If I were to provide all of the text in that Constitution on the obligation of maintaining secrecy and how it is to be done, there would be little time to discuss the topic of this address—the historicalbackground of that secrecy. One irony of studying the history of papal elections is that there is a great deal more firsthand source material for the conclave of 1549-50, for example, than for the most recent ones.

It will come as no surprise to those who know the history of the papacy that secrecy had no place in the papal elections of Christianity's first millennium. While little is known of the elections of the bishops of Rome before 1059, it is clear that they were public affairs. Cyprian of [End Page 165] Carthage tells a charming story about the election in 236 of St. Fabian. Fabian was not among the candidates whom the assembled brethren were considering, until a white dove landed on his head. "Thereupon the people, all as if impelled by one divine spirit, with one united and eager voice cried out that he was worthy, and immediately they set him on the episcopal seat."2 After Fabian fell victim to Emperor Decius's persecution, the Romans put off electing a new bishop for a year. During that time factionalism erupted in the Church over the issue of what to do with those who had given in to the command to burn incense to the emperor. A rigorist group demanded that they be rebaptized before being readmitted, while a lenient faction only required penance. Both factions elected bishops: Cornelius by the forgivers, Novatian by the rigorists. Both sought support from Cyprian, who sided with Cornelius. He wrote to others laying out the reasons why he supported Cornelius as the true bishop of Rome: "Cornelius was made bishop by the choice of God and His Christ, by the favorable witness of almost all of the clergy, by the votes of the laity present, and by the assembly of bishops."3 The election of the bishop was a public matter for the entire Christian community of Rome.

By 600 elections were being held in the Lateran Basilica. It was the clergy's domain, which suggests that they dominated the elections, and the basilica certainly was too small to hold all the people, but the use of the phrase "with the whole people" indicates there still occurred some sort of lay ratification of the clergy's choice.4 In the centuries that followed, papal elections were so confused that it is impossible to generalize about the process except to say that lay participation continued in some fashion. The low point of papal history probably occurred in 931 when the son of Pope Sergius and his mistress became John XI through his ties with the Roman nobility. Such a sorry state of affairs led to a reform movement, led by the Cluniac monks, which demanded that the clergy be free of the secular powers and the Roman clerics select the pope without interference.

The popes, under the thumb of the Roman nobility in the early 1000's, were slow to reflect the Cluniac reform. Holy Roman Emperor Henry III brought it to the papacy by appointing popes influenced by it. When Henry died in 1056, leaving a child as his successor, the reformers [End Page 166] were ready...


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