An unlikely place for geriatric disenfranchisement--the Vatican
Every now and then, some small fact grabs my attention and piques my curiosity. Last night, it was the rules for selecting the next pope.
I had always perceived the Vatican to be one of the last and greatest strongholds of geriatric power. It ordinarily takes quite a long while to rise in the hierarchy of the Catholic church. By the time a man becomes a cardinal, he is usually fairly elderly; and, as with Supreme Court Justices, the only mandatory retirement age is death.
I had thought that, in the Catholic church, wisdom was presumed to grow with age, not diminish. Therefore I was surprised to hear, during the funeral services for John Paul II, that cardinals over the age of 80 are not allowed to vote for his successor.
We're not talking about an insubstantial number of cardinals, either. At present, about a third of the cardinals are over 80 years old. That's a lot of disenfranchised cardinals.
Why the ban? I think there may be an interesting story there, but it's not easy to find an answer. It turns out that it's a relatively recent ruling, especially in light of the lengthy history of the Catholic church. It was only in 1971 that Pope Paul VI banned cardinals over 80 from voting for pope. I've been unable to find anything online explaining the reasoning behind this rather radical change in an institution not exactly known for innovation.
The cardinals themselves appear to have taken it well, with a minimum of fuss. I could find only one exception. In 2003, an Italian cardinal named Silvestrini mounted a drive to have the rule changed back again (not totally coincidentally, he himself was about to turn 80 at the time).
An excerpt from an interview with Silvestrini sheds a little light, however, on John Paul II's views on the reason for the ban:
In his 1996 apostolic constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis," John Paul II says the over-80 cardinals should be excluded so as "not to add to the weight of such venerable age the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one who will have to lead Christ's flock in ways adapted to the needs of the times.
So it appears that the reason behind the rule is the quite legitimate and understandable concern that the over-80 cardinals might not be forward-thinking enough to elect a pope for the twenty-first century. It's therefore technically possible--although highly unlikely--that, when the cardinals convene, we could have the paradoxical result of a pope who is over 80 being chosen by a process in which his over-80 peers (including himself!) are excluded from voting.