How History Can Help Us Predict the Next Pope

Why a slow election might mean a dark-horse candidate, and other clues from past conclaves.

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Cardinals attend a mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 12, 2013. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

On Thursday, February 28, at 8:00 P.M. local time, Pope Benedict XVI resigned. For now, the seat of St. Peter is vacant. But soon, the Cardinals will enter the Sistine chapel and the master of the Papal Ceremonies will cry, "Extra Omnes!" -- everybody out, and seal the door.

In the wake of the Pope's sudden announcement, medieval historians on both sides of the Atlantic have been all over the news. Pope Benedict, of course, was not the first pope to retire. Using Benedict's own veneration of a 13th-century pope, Celestine V, who also retired because of age, historians have initiated a discussion of papal history to explore the context of this nearly unprecedented abdication. Each of the papal resignations over the last thousand years has set the stage for major changes, for good or for ill, in the history of the Catholic Church.

What changes will mark the Catholic church of tomorrow? Just as the past helps us understand Benedict's resignation, we can use our knowledge of history to shed some light on what the Cardinals might be doing behind those sealed doors.

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 their predecessors.

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.

When Pope Benedict decided to resign, he presumably had a plan. He has stocked the College of Cardinals with like-minded individuals, but he also changed the rules to require a two-thirds majority. A lot can happen once the doors are sealed. One would expect the traditionalists who dominate the College to pick a candidate and propel him forward, but this will require other powerful men to step aside. A quick election will suggest that this process happened smoothly. A slow one opens the door for a surprise candidate to emerge.

4) Sometimes the cardinals elect intellectuals and sometimes they elect administrators. When one doesn't work out, they might switch directions.

After Celestine, a man of unquestioned piety, resigned, the Cardinals quickly selected his canon lawyer to become the new Pope Boniface VIII. But Boniface's papacy was anything but a return to a well-managed stable machine. Rather, his papacy was marred by bitter conflicts with King Phillip IV of France among others. Dante, notoriously, placed Boniface in Hell, and he may have put Celestine there as well.

Pope Benedict XVI is, at heart, a theologian and intellectual. Even those who support his agenda have criticized his limitations as an administrator. Some are predicting the elevation of the best bureaucrat in the room, rather than the smartest guy. In his resignation announcement, Benedict described the modern world as, "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith." There's no guarantee a bureaucrat will be more successful than a theologian at leading the Church to address these changes and questions.

5) History education still matters.

In America, we are in the midst of an ongoing debate about the value of different types of education. We see STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) pitted against the Humanities; vocational training pitted against the Liberal Arts. But Catholic history tells us to reject "either/or" in favor of "both/and." We need both specific expertise and the fruits of contemplation. We need passionate commitment to both job training and liberal learning, especially when they seem to clash in opposition, so that we are ready to respond to the unexpected events that life generates. Who knew on February 10 that the public square would require the expertise of so many historians and theologians? Who knows what kind of experts we will need for the next surprise?