The Next Conclave — The Camerlengo and The Major Penitentiary

by Anura Guruge

Related Articles: 1. Over 80 Rule &    2. Dean may be excluded

This is the third article in a series about those that can participate in the next conclave — promoted by the London Times blooper that had Cardinal Sodano, as the Dean, attending the next conclave — though he is already 82, and thus two years over the mandatory, inviolable 80 year cut-off for conclave participation.

If the Dean of the College, the Vice Dean, the senior most Cardinal Priest or the senior most Cardinal Deacon cannot participate in a conclave, the senior most of that ‘order’ automatically deputizes for the absent member without incident. This has already happened since the 80 year cut-off rule came into play as of January 1971 — in particular during the two 1978 conclaves.

There are, however, two exceptions that have to be considered, the Cardinal Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church and the Major Penitentiary. Both of specific duties that have to be performed right through the sede vacante — with it being imperative that the Camerlengo is present within the conclave since he has to head up the Particular Congregations held within the conclave to handle ad hoc logisticsal and procedural issues.

The Camerlengo
The Camerlengo is essentially the master of ceremonies during the sede vacante. Conclave protocol requires the camerlengo to be present within the conclave to mastermind and handle certain procedural issues — e.g., whether the electors can take a break between the two ballots that make up a session etc.

The rules are also such that the 80 year cut-off will still apply to the Camerlengo.

Hence, the modern practice is that the Camerlengo will resign when he turns 80. Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Somalo, who was the Camerlengo at the 2005 conclave, resigned on April 4, 2007 — 4 days after his 80th birthday. The prior Camerlengo, Italian Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, died a couple of months short of his 80th birthday. The one before that, Cardinal Bertoli resigned at 77 while his predecessor, the storied Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot died at 73 a year after his gallant efforts acting as Camerlengo in both of the 1978 conclaves.

The current Camerlengo is Italian Cardinal Bertone who is currently 75 (b. December 2, 1934).

If a Camerlengo had turned 80 prior to the sede vacante, he would have to resign prior to the conclave. The College of Cardinals will then elect, via secret ballot, one of the cardinal electors, to act as an interim Camerlengo — to serve until the election of the new pope. The Apostolic Constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, already has a provision to handle this.

There is a Vice-Camerlengo. But, the Vice-Camerlengo is not a cardinal. He is a member of the Apotolic Camera that administers papal finances. Given that he is not a cardinal, the Vice-Camerlengo cannot deputize for the Camerlengo per se during the sede vacante or within the conclave. Since only a pope can creates cardinals, the Vice-Camerlengo cannot be promoted during a sede vacante.

The Major Penitentiary
The Church requires a Major Penitentiary to be available at all times to mediate in matters of mercy.

Though the Major Penitentiary is usually a cardinal, this does not always have to be the case. Right now the Major Penitentiary, or to be precise the Pro-Major Penitentiary, Fortunato Baldelli, is not a cardinal.  Thus, if there was to be a conclave he would not be attending. This also tells us that unlike with the Camerlengo it is not imperative that the Major Penitentiary is present at the conclave.

In theory, the Major Penitentiary as the head of curial dicastery must tender his resignation at 75 — though a pope can continue to retain him in that job as long as he wants, irrespective of age. [A Camerlengo, though usually the head of the Apostolic Camera, can be a camerlengo without heading up a curial dicastery. Thus, the 75 year rule does not apply to that poet.]

If the Major Penitentiary is over 80 at the start of the sede vacante, it would appear that he could continue to serve until the new pope is elected — though he will not be able to participate in the conclave. In this respect it would be the same as having a non-cardinal Major Penitentiary.

However, if something happens to the Major Penitentiary just prior to or during the sede vacante it is incumbent on the College of Cardinals to promptly elect a new one, via secret ballot. In this instance, the new Major Penitentiary has to be a cardinal — thought it does not stipulate that he has to be a cardinal elector [i.e., under 80]


The secret ballots used to elect a Camerlengo or Major Penitentiary during the sede vacante are not contingent on an absolute majority, as is the case with electing the pope. However gets the most votes wins. If there is a tie, the senior most cardinal, in terms of precedence within the College, gets the nod. All cardinals, irrespective of age, can vote in these elections if they take place outside the conclave. If the ballot has to be conducted within the conclave, for example if the Camerlengo dies during a conclave, only the cardinal electors will be able to participate since the older cardinals will be cut-off from them.

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