The surprisingly effective medieval security of a papal election

This week, Catholic Church cardinals are convening the first meetings in the shadowy process that will select the next pope. It's been widely reported that the church is looking to move quickly in replacing Benedict XVI -- who will now take on the title emeritus pope (seriously) -- in order to have a new pope in place by the Easter holidays. With Palm Sunday rapidly approaching on March 24, the next few weeks are going to be busy for Vatican-watchers assigned to read the tea leaves of the upcoming papal conclave.

With mandated vows of silence and the near-total isolation of voting cardinals, the conclave stubbornly retains a degree of secrecy that is proudly out of step with today's emphasis on transparency. The cardinals will huddle behind closed doors, casting ballot after ballot until they reach the two-thirds majority necessary to select God's new representative on earth.

If it all sounds a little outdated ... well, it is. And given the enormous stakes of a papal election, might that not be a serious problem for the church? Just yesterday, an impostor posing as a bishop was stopped trying to crash the pre-conclave meetings.

But the old-fashioned traditions of a papal election mask a more surprising reality: The papal conclave is something of a marvel in election security.

Foreseeing the legion of hackers who would like nothing more than to poke around and maybe even influence a papal election, Bruce Schneier, who blogs about security technology, considered whether it would be possible to "hack" a papal election.  The answer is a resounding no. First, the entire process is analog -- no computers involved at any point. So any attempt to influence or tamper with votes would have to happen within the conclave. But the only people allowed inside are voting cardinals and a small group of assistants. As the cardinals all know each other, the likelihood of getting an imposter inside the proceedings is virtually impossible (a too-short cassock gave away yesterday's impostor). Vote tampering, meanwhile, is also seemingly impossible, as the votes and ballots are all checked by randomly selected cardinals prior to each vote. The process is elaborate and, after all, has been refined over millennia. 

There are, however, other options for those looking to subvert a papal election.

The first obvious path would be electronic surveillance from within the conclave, which is held in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo's monumental fresco of the Last Judgment. Here, however, the Vatican is one step ahead of the would-be eavesdroppers. According to the Los Angeles Times, Vatican police had already begun sweeping the chapel for bugging devices as of last Thursday. But even if one managed to get a listening device inside the chapel, it likely wouldn't work anyway. It turns out the Swiss Guards -- the elite force charged with protecting the pope -- had the floor of the chapel raised so that they could install electronic jamming devices.

A more effective way to gain influence at a conclave is to practice some good, old-fashioned vote-buying. But this too has its problems. First, Benedict changed conclave rules to require a two-thirds majority to select a pope. With 117 cardinals expected to vote, the number of votes required to exercise any real influence gets prohibitively high very quickly. The probability of successfully buying the number of votes necessary to swing an election drops even lower when you consider that cardinals come from around the world, speak many different languages, and are, in all likelihood, committed to maintaining the sanctity of the proceedings that select the pope.

That said, a papal election is still an influence game. While no real politicking takes place inside the conclave, the days and weeks ahead of the formal proceedings are when the deals are made and the coalitions built to find a new pope. According to the National Catholic Reporter's excellent primer on conclaves:  

Informal meetings also take place around the edges, among cardinals who have been friends over long stretches of time or who share a similar sense of where the church ought to go or who speak the same language (in this case, literally rather than metaphorically; that is, English-speakers often come together with one another, Spanish-speakers meet among themselves, and so on).

Unlike previous conclaves, in 2005 these sessions took place almost entirely in discreet locations, such as the private apartments of curial members, the national colleges where many cardinals were staying prior to moving into the Casa Santa Marta on Vatican grounds, and in the lounges of various ecclesiastical facilities around town. In part because of a desire to shun publicity, cardinals largely stayed away from their favorite Roman restaurants. (For some, this was probably the biggest sacrifice of the interregnum.)

In the initial stages, the most important gatherings tended to take place by language group. One such get-together in April 2005, for example, took place at the end of the first week of the interregnum at the Venerable English College on Via Monserrato, just off Rome's Piazza Farnese, home to seminarians from Great Britain as well as handful of other clergy connected in one way or another to the United Kingdom.

The session was hosted by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, at the time still archbishop of Westminster, who emerged as a key point of reference for the English-speaking cardinals in the run-up to the conclave. In such environments, away from prying eyes and ears, cardinals were able to chat freely about various candidates and to get a sense of what other cardinals were thinking.

As one cardinal put it, "Some were rather uncomfortable with the free-flowing nature of these conversations, but that's what you have to do if you're going to get anywhere."

One wrinkle in all of this: According to the NCR, the building the cardinals are staying in during the deliberations -- Casa Santa Maria -- is Wi-Fi-equipped, meaning a cardinal could, in theory, leak the proceedings from inside the residence. But unless their colleagues are also disobeying the rules against contact with the outside world, any effort to build momentum for or sabotage a candidate in the press is likely to have limited impact. What's more, a cardinal would face enormous penalties if he flouted these rules. Breaking the vow of secrecy now carries the penalty of excommunication -- even for a cardinal.

Mudslinging and strategic leaks to the press are much more likely in the run-up to the conclave. Consider just the following examples compiled by NCR from the 2005 conclave that resulted in Benedict's election: 

  • The Italian media reported rumors that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice had been treated for depression, suggesting a sort of psychological instability that might disqualify him for the church's highest office. (That bit of character assassination may make the rounds again this time, since Scola is once again considered a serious runner.)
  • Reports that Cardinal Ivan Dias of Mumbai has diabetes, a sign of ill health. In addition, an email campaign allegedly initiated by members of his own flock in India made the rounds, including complaints of an "unapproachable, stubborn and arrogant style."
  • Reports about a book in Argentina, given wide attention in the Spanish-language media, alleging that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been unacceptably close to the military junta in the 1970s, even that he was complicit in the persecution of two liberal Argentinian Jesuits, something his defenders stoutly denied. Another email campaign, this one claiming to originate with fellow Jesuits who knew Bergoglio back when he was the provincial of the order in Argentina, claimed "he never smiled."
  • Reports surfaced alleging that both Ratzinger and Sodano, considered by some to be leading candidates, were in poor health, raising questions about their physical capacity to be pope.

In short, expect a lot of dirty laundry to be aired in the media in the days ahead. But when the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel, all we can do is wait for the puff of white smoke.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

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