Dear Straight Dope: How does one become Pope? Divine inspiration has a part in it I’m sure, but how does The Man Upstairs communicate to us lesser mortals who his pick is? email@example.com
SDStaff Ian replies:
So, you wanna be Pope, huh? First, you have to be a priest. Duh, I know, but if I left it out, people would write in and tell me. It helps, these days, to get a good education in the meantime, and it doesn’t hurt if that education is somewhere in Italy. A good, educated priest like you should have no time getting involved in the grass-roots scene, and get named a bishop (oversees a diocese, an ecclesiastical district consisting of a number of parishes, or local churches). To become an archbishop (oversees an archdiocese, a large and prestigious diocese), however, you really need to know someone in high office. Archbishops, you see, are anointed by the Pope himself. The next step is to get yourself into the College of Cardinals. Not so easy. Unless I miscount, there are only 166 cardinals worldwide, or about one for every 8-9 million or so Catholics worldwide. Of those, only 120 can vote for the next Pope when the Holy See becomes vacant. OK, in truth, there are actually Cardinal Priests and Cardinal Deacons in addition to Cardinal Bishops, but for the most part the hierarchy can be taken as a good guide.
After the current Pope is declared officially dead, the College of Cardinals votes for one of its own to succeed him. The vote is by secret ballot, with some Cardinals eligible for consultation but not voting. No contact with the outside world is allowed during this process, although at the next election, the public will be allowed to view the Cardinals at selected times. Unsuccessful ballots are burned with a substance so they burn black, and upon election, another substance is used so they burn white, and these smoke signals are the only way the world finds out the results of the election. The new pontiff must be elected by a 2/3 majority of all ballots cast, but according to a new rule instituted by Pope John Paul II, if no 2/3 majority is cast within the first 30 ballots, a simple majority is all that is required.
SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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