Cardinals violating their vows: a ho-hum story?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 25, 2019

America magazine is running a story about the conclave of 2013. The story—excerpted from the forthcoming The Election of Pope Francis, by Gerard O’Connell—includes a precise account of the voting on the cardinals’ first ballot.

Do you have any doubt that O’Connell’s account is accurate? I don’t. A conclave is supposed to be confidential, and every cardinal vows to keep the proceedings secret. Yet within a few weeks after every conclave, journalists have at least a rough idea of how the votes were cast. O’Connell’s story is remarkable only for its details.

How is this possible? During a conclave the only people present—the cardinals and a very few other officials—are sworn to secrecy. The oath that they take, set forth by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, is both clear and solemn:

I, N.N., promise and swear that, unless I should receive a special faculty given expressly by the newly-elected Pontiff or by his successors, I will observe absolute and perpetual secrecy with all who are not part of the College of Cardinal electors concerning all matters directly or indirectly related to the ballots cast and their scrutiny for the election of the Supreme Pontiff…

I declare that I take this oath fully aware that an infraction thereof will make me subject to the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae, which is reserved to the Apostolic See.

If O’Connell’s information is correct—and again, I don’t doubt it—several alarming conclusions are unavoidable:

  • At least one cardinal violated his oath.
  • That cardinal or cardinals has/have incurred the penalty of excommunication.
  • The excommunicated cardinal(s) knows that he is excommunicated, since he was “fully aware” of the penalty.
  • The other cardinals know that there was someone in their midst who has violated his oath and is now excommunicated—and is therefore, for at least two reasons, in danger of damnation. But we have not heard cries of dismay or calls for repentance.

This is a scandal. And it doesn’t help that the same scandal arose after previous conclaves. If some cardinals violate their sacred oaths, and other cardinals accept the violation quietly, as if it were (since in fact it is) a matter of routine, how can they expect to regain the confidence of the faithful?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pcamarata4429 - Mar. 26, 2019 7:48 PM ET USA

    “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn't hope to find himself again. Sir Thomas More, Act II in Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons Wonder who opened his fingers...and has lost himself

  • Posted by: Monserrat - Mar. 26, 2019 4:01 PM ET USA

    Thanks very much for providing the latae sententiae documentation. Was wondering how this book was possible. Now I know. Let’s hope the offender(s) are unmasked before the next conclave.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Mar. 26, 2019 8:01 AM ET USA

    The conclusion isn't unavoidable if you're willing to embrace a naive outlook: the Pope simply dispensed one or more Cardinals from that oath. The possibility's there, and since it is, it would be rash to assume otherwise. Especially given the benefit of the doubt which filial piety demands we give to our spiritual fathers, right? Not that I doubt your conclusions. Every week for years some new scandal with a technically possible innocuous interpretation has arisen to test our "charity".

  • Posted by: Cory - Mar. 26, 2019 4:28 AM ET USA

    Ah Phil, You forgot this bit when you made the list: "unless I should receive a special faculty given expressly by the newly-elected Pontiff or by his successors" Option e: someone was given the greenlight to go ahead?

  • Posted by: jeanneg117438 - Mar. 25, 2019 7:35 PM ET USA

    Isn't there another possibility? Couldn't the "Supreme Pontiff" have given permission for a Cardinal (or two) to speak confidentially (or otherwise) to the media? Given Francis's strange relationship with the media and propensity to speak off the cuff even to journalists who are self-professed enemies of the Church, isn't it possible that he gave permission to some of his supporters to speak to media?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 25, 2019 4:05 PM ET USA

    In for an inch, in for a mile seems to be obvious. After all the telling of secrets pale in comparison to the deliberate destruction to our Catholic church. I paraphrase what pope B XVI said, the Church will be much smaller. Question is can the Church get smaller without clerical assistance in driving the faithful out in much the same way as Christ drove the vendors from the temple? I think bad clerics is very effective in bringing destruction.