What Congress could learn from the papal conclave

 |  NCR Today

In Rome, as the College of Cardinals enters the conclave this evening to begin its work electing a new pope, in the United States, Congress continues to be incapable of resolving the political and budgetary crisis caused by sequestration.  The cardinals will probably only take a few days to elect a pope, but by the time the conclave is over, Congress may still be deadlocked in its efforts to pass a budget, much to the embarrassment of the nation.

In the 13th Century, the Catholic Church faced similar embarrassment when the College of Cardinals proved incapable of electing someone to be the successor of St. Peter. Like the U.S. Senate, the College of Cardinals has a two-thirds rule and it is not always easy to find someone who can get enough votes. It took them a year and a half to elect Innocent IV in 1243 and three and a half years before Gregory X was installed in 1271. The first election took place in Rome while the second took place in Viterbo, a small town 50 miles north of Rome. 

One reason the cardinals were slow to elect a pope is that they controlled the papacy's money during the interregnum and they preferred partying to doing their duty. These were also perilous times with kings and rulers fighting over the papacy and the Papal States.

Needless to say, the people in the pews were no happier with the cardinals than American citizens are happy with members of Congress. The Romans revolted and locked the cardinals up until they finally elected a pope. The word "conclave" comes from the Latin for "locked with a key." The citizens of Viterbo did the same when they got fed up with inaction by the cardinals, but the cardinals still delayed, so the people cut the cardinals' food down to one meal a day. When that did not work, they put them on bread and water. Finally they tore the roof off the building where the cardinals were staying, leaving them open to the elements. Finally, "Habemus Papam." 

The church eventually enshrined these practices into law. The last conclave to go more than four days was in 1831. Today during a conclave the cardinals live inside the Vatican, cut off from the outside world without telephones, television or Internet. No newspapers or mail goes in our out of the conclave. At the conclave there is also electronic jamming equipment to enforce these rules and suppress bugs.

Like what you're reading? Get free emails from NCR.

The United States could learn from the Catholic Church on how to get leaders to do their duty. The lesson is clear. If you want a budget, lock up the Congress, take away their cellphones and Internet, don't let them go to fund raisers, and if necessary put them on bread and water until they pass a budget. It has worked for hundreds of years in the Catholic Church, it might even work in Washington. 

Follow Reese on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ. His email is treesesj@NCRonline.org.

Support independent reporting on important issues.

 One family graphic_2016_250x103.jpg


NCR Comment code: (Comments can be found below)

Before you can post a comment, you must verify your email address at Disqus.com/verify.
Comments from unverified email addresses will be deleted.

  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the original idea will be deleted. NCR reserves the right to close comment threads when discussions are no longer productive.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report abuse" button. Once a comment has been flagged, an NCR staff member will investigate.

For more detailed guidelines, visit our User Guidelines page.

For help on how to post a comment, visit our reference page.

Commenting is available during business hours, Central time, USA. Commenting is not available in the evenings, over weekends and on holidays. More details are available here. Comments are open on NCR's Facebook page.



NCR Email Alerts


In This Issue

July 14-27, 2017