Cardinal denies working on changes to procedures for papal elections

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Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda speaks to reporters at the Vatican Feb. 20, 2023, about the release of a two-volume book on the theology of the priesthood and the need to promote a better understanding of priesthood in a "synodal" church. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a top adviser to Pope Francis on matters involving canon law, denied reports the pope had asked him to draft revisions to the rules governing the preparations for electing a new pope.

“I confirm my denial and have nothing else to add,” he told Catholic News Service Nov. 6.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, told CNS, “As far as I know, no revision is being worked on.”

The Pillar website reported Nov. 4 that its “sources close to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State” had said Cardinal Ghirlanda was asked specifically to draft revised rules for the “general congregations” — meetings of cardinals — that take place in the days before a conclave.

While the general congregations deal with some practical matters needing attention between the death or resignation of a pope and the election of a new one, the main purpose is for the cardinals to share views about the state of the Church and the qualities needed in the next pope. The general congregations take place behind closed doors with all participants taking a vow of secrecy.

Proposed changes

The rules outlining what happens with the death of a pope and for the general congregations and the conclave to elect a new pope are spelled out in St. John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” and the revisions made to it by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and just before his resignation in 2013. Only a pope could promulgate changes to the rules.

According to The Pillar, one proposed change would exclude cardinals over the age of 80 from participating in the general congregations. Currently, while they are not required to attend, they are encouraged to do so even though they are not eligible to enter the conclave and participate in the voting for a new pope.

The other change The Pillar reported was making the congregation’s discussions about the state and needs of the Church more like the format of the recently concluded assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Rather than a series of long speeches to all the cardinals, the supposed revision would see cardinals meeting in small groups for more in-depth conversation.

The Pillar also said there were “rumors” that Pope Francis wanted to make provisions to invite some laypeople to participate in the general congregations.

A few hours after The Pillar story appeared, The Remnant newspaper reported that Pope Francis and Cardinal Ghirlanda have had a series of meetings since the spring to discuss revisions to “Universi Dominici Gregis,” including excluding over-80 cardinals from the general congregations and using small-group meetings.

But The Remnant also claimed that the proposed revisions would have cardinals under the age of 80 comprise 75% of the voters entering the Sistine Chapel for the conclave, “while the remaining 25% would be made up of lay men and women and religious sisters, papally appointed by Pope Francis in advance of the Apostolic See becoming vacant.”

Cardinal Ghirlanda told a variety of news outlets that the stories that he is working on revisions to “Universi Dominici Gregis” are untrue.

Cindy Wooden

Cindy Wooden is a journalist with Catholic News Service.