The Minimum Age to be a Pope

by Anura Guruge

This is in response to a recent query.

The minimum age to be pope is probably 25, that being the minimum age to be a Catholic priest or deacon, but that needs to be qualified and justified.

Contrary to what some believe current Canon Law [i.e., the 1983 code] does not address this, or for that matter any other eligibility criteria as to who could be elected pope. Canon 349, under the chapter “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,” is in reality the only canon that even touches upon papal eligibility. It basically states that the cardinals of the Church make up a special [i.e., exclusive] college that has the prerogative to elect the pope — which, however, will be done per the ‘norm of special law’ [i.e., one that is not included in the canons].

Some Essential Background
By inference, as well as practice, the ‘special law’ that governs papal elections is specified by apostolic constitutions and papal edicts. John Paul II’s, February 22, 1996 apostolic constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis (the Lord’s whole flock), modified by Benedict XVI’s June 11, 2007 Motu proprio (‘an edict’) that ratified the need for a two third majority for election at all times, constitute the current ‘standing orders’ for the next conclave — and hence the next election.

John Paul II’s constitution, though it states that the electors will be cardinals under the age of 80, does not, in anyway, address who should or could be considered for election. The last papal edict that addressed papal eligibility was Nicholas II’s In Nomine Domini papal bull of 1059. This stated that the electors (just the cardinal bishops at that juncture) should make their choice from within the Roman church [i.e., Roman cardinal priests and deacons]  — but could chose from ‘another church’ if a suitable candidate could not be found from within the Roman church. This essentially reinforced a decree from a 769 Roman synod that mandated that only cardinal priests and cardinal deacons [i.e., clerics associated with the Roman churches] were eligible to be pope — albeit with the proviso that a cleric from outside Rome could be elected, if necessary.

Between 1059 and 1389, 11 of the 47 popes elected were not cardinals. Urban VI, a one time curialist in Avignon [France] and then an archbishop in Italy, elected in 1378 following a very disorderly conclave, has been the last non-cardinal to be pope.

Since November 2, 1389 all 63 of the popes elected, without exception, have been cardinals. The next pope will, indubitably, be chosen from among the cardinals — that serving as the baseline for my papabili list for 2009.

Age Limit for a Priest, Bishop or Cardinal
Canon 378, to do with ‘Bishops,’ states that one must be at least 35 years old to be considered as a bishop. The pope is most definitely the Bishop of Rome. So one could use this 35 year requirement as the minimum age to be a pope.

But then again we have canon 439 that was discussed at the start. The Bishop of Rome, i.e., the pope, is the only bishop that is chosen by cardinals, via a secret ballot, meeting in conclave — per a ‘special law.’ There is also Canon 377 that states that bishops are appointed, or their lawful elections are confirmed, by the pope. These factors could be interpreted to mean that the pope, though certainly the Bishop of Rome, is not subject to Canon 378.

So we are back to the Nicholas II’s 1059 bull and the inarguable fact that for the last 600 years, without fail, the cardinal electors have always elected one from within their ranks as pope.

Since 1917 canon law has required that only men that have been ordained at least to the order of a priesthood may be created a cardinal by the pope. Canon 1031 requires one to have reached 25 years in age in order to be ordained as a priest. So since 1917, one needed to be at least 25 in order to be created a cardinal (in marked contrast to Leo X, the second son of the famed Florentine Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de’ Medici who was created a cardinal, at his father’s behest, at the age of 13, in March 1489 — albeit in pectore [i.e., undisclosed to the public]). Yes, in theory, the pope who has near infinite powers in such matters could probably make an exception if he really wanted to create a cardinal that was younger than 25. But this is improbable, at least in the current era.

Since an April 15, 1962 Motu proprio by John XXIII, it has also been a requirement that all cardinals be consecrated as bishops (if they are not already bishops) — unless an explicit waiver is granted by the pope (typically on the grounds of advanced age). This is now incorporated within canon 351, which in part states that those that are not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration. [It does not state that they at that juncture need to meet the prerequisites stated for being a bishop. If there was that implication, one assumes it would have been alluded to at some point within the canons.] Plus there is the waiver — which has been used a number of  times. So this means that one does not, at least in theory, have to meet the 35 year limit associated with being a bishop in order to be created a cardinal — if a pope so wishes.

Hence, why we are back to 25 again.

The Facts
The youngest cardinal at present is Hungary’s Peter Erdo — who was born on June 25, 1952 (57 years).

The next youngest, at 59, is the French Philippe Xavier Barbarin — #6 on my 2009 papabili list.

The youngest pope elected since 1400 was Leo X (the 13 year old cardinal), at the age of 37, in 1513.

The second youngest, since 1400, happens to be Leo X’s cousin Clement VII, one pope later, at the age of 45. [So there is a 8 year difference between the youngest and the second youngest.]

There have been four other popes, since 1400, who were elected prior to turning 50.

The average age of the 62 popes elected since 1400 is 62.39 years.

One of the youngest popes ever was probably John (‘Octavian’) XII, the illegitimate son of Alberic II who ruled Rome from 932 to 954. Alberic, on his deathbed, coerced influential Romans to promise that they would make sure his son, Octavian, would succeed him as the ruler of Rome and also be appointed the next pope. Octavian became John XII [his step-uncle having been John XI] in December 955 when Agapetus II  died.  John was supposed to have been around 18 years of age at that point. The infamous Benedict IX, who served an unprecedented three terms as pope, was also quite young when  first elected in October 1032. He was the last layman to be elected pope. Though there are those that claim that he was but a teenager when elected in reality he was probably in his twenties.

John Paul II was 58 when elected. The 20th youngest pope since 1400. He was the youngest since June 1846 when Pius IX was elected at the age of 54.

The current pope, Benedict XVI, at 78 years and 3 days was the 5th oldest pope elected since 1400. One has to go back to 1689 to find a pope who was older than 78 at the time of election, that being Alexander VIII who was 79. This Alexander and Clement X, both in their 79th year, being the oldest to be elected — since 1400. Hope this answered the question.

Thank you.


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