Saturday, April 09, 2005

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.


At 2:34 PM, April 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not let Cardinals over 80 vote? I don't see a good reason for preventing them from doing so especially after they had done so for centuries prior to that right be taken away.

At 9:54 PM, April 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another reason for not letting cardinals over 80 vote is that being elderly ain't what it used to be. In the old days, before modern medical technology, if a cardinal could make it to Rome for the vote he probably was in good shape physically and mentally. Now people are living much longer but are not necessarily as vigorous as elderly people once were. Hence there is a fear that the upper levels of the College of Cardinals are on average alive but not nearly as sharp as they used to be. This is also the reason why many wanted JPII to set a precedent and resign as he became frailer.

At 1:13 PM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Bookworm said...

I think a little "drag" would be a good thing. As someone whose views have modified considerably over time, there is something good to be said for the vision that comes with age and experience. It seems to me that it would be smarter at least to give them a weighted vote, considering their numbers -- that is, one doesn't want the vote completely dominated by reactionary "When I were a lad" type voters, but one does want that counterweight to unfettered progressivism.


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