1) Voting is medieval.
Voting is a quintessentially medieval activity. Sure, popular representations of the Middle Ages focus on kings and knights, princesses and peasants, but
medieval people, especially in cities, loved to vote. They organized themselves into groups - guilds, religious fraternities, charitable organization,
drinking societies - and wrote complicated bylaws governing elections. Many cities embraced various kinds of representative government during the High
Middle Ages. Even the army outside the walls of Constantinople in 1204 took time to develop a voting system to elect the next emperor.
It's easy to characterize the Conclave of Cardinals as an authoritarian relic of the past. It's not. It's the same kind of democratic tradition that
permeates modern American and European life, from board rooms to union halls to church groups to town councils.
2) Papal elections have had all sorts of rules, but when the rules were inconvenient the cardinals either changed or ignored them.
In the city of Viterbo in 1271, the cardinals elected Pope Gregory X. At the time, Gregory (then still Teobaldo Visconti) was off on crusade and wasn't
even a priest. He was elected because the cardinals had spent the last three years arguing about who should be pope. Finally, the citizens stopped feeding
the cardinals anything but bread and water and even removed the roof from the papal palace. Gregory thought these extreme measures might help in the
future, so institutionalized the procedure of denying food to the electors after 5 days without electing a pope. This law, however, was overturned within a
year of Gregory's death. The cardinals, it seems, were determined to get their way or stymie the whole process.
In 2013, it's hard to imagine that this group of powerful men will feel too beholden to the rules if they become inconvenient. For example, the cardinals,
"from the beginning of the election until its conclusion and the public announcement of its outcome, are not to communicate -- whether by writing, by
telephone or by any other means of communication -- with persons outside the area where the election is taking place." If the election goes quickly, then
perhaps the prohibitions against receiving or sending information will hold. But do we really think that in the age of Twitter, we can keep cardinals from
reading their email, communicating with trusted allies, and otherwise breaking the information seal? I find it unlikely, if these men are anything like
3) Wildcard candidates for pope get elected only when no consensus candidate emerges quickly.
The church has changed directions radically from time to time through papal elections, but it's hard to find an example of such a change as a planned
event. In 1294, for example, after competing factions among the cardinals failed to reach consensus for over two years, they decided to elect a pious
hermit who was, at the time, isolated in a mountain retreat. He took the name Celestine V. In 1958, John XXIII was elected after the cardinals decided that
the consensus pick, Giovanni Montini, Archbishop of Milan, should be made a cardinal before he was chosen as pope (Montini succeeded John as Paul VI). Far
from being a mere aged caretaker pope, Pope John called the historic Second Vatican Council.