Anticipating the conclave — literally

VATICAN CITY — Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed this morning that top cardinals and canon lawyers at the Vatican are studying the possibility of beginning the conclave to elect a new pope before March 15.

But only the cardinals can announce the exact date the conclave will begin, he told reporters this morning.

Under the rules established in the apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” on the vacancy of the papacy and the election of a pope, cardinals in Rome “must wait 15 full days for those who are absent” before they can enter into a conclave and begin the process of electing a new pope.

However, Pope Benedict XVI has scheduled a farewell meeting with cardinals the morning of Feb. 28 — just before he leaves office — and many of the world’s cardinals are expected to be present.

In addition, the fact that Pope Benedict announced his resignation Feb. 11 has given the cardinals plenty of time to make their arrangements to get to Rome. Therefore, the question has arisen: Does the 15-day rule apply if all the cardinals are in Rome before that?

Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi addresses media about pope's impending resignation

Father Lombardi (CNS/Paul Haring)

“One could interpret the constitution in a way, precisely, that would say there is no longer a reason to wait,” Father Lombardi said.

The rules also say: “Should doubts arise concerning the prescriptions contained in this constitution, or concerning the manner of putting them into effect, I decree that all power of issuing a judgment in this regard belongs to the College of Cardinals, to which I grant the faculty of interpreting doubtful or controverted points.”

The spokesman said, “The situation is a bit different” than it would be with the death of a pope, which would be the normal situation addressed by “Universi Dominici Gregis.”

It is possible, he said, that Pope Benedict will intervene and rewrite the rules, “but at this point I would move” more along the path of the cardinals determining what is and is not possible for them to do under the rules as they are.