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The Straight Pope

By on Apr 1, 2013 | 1 comment

As you might expect, these days I meet a lot of lawyers. Usually professional, sometimes social. For the most part I like lawyers. Just like in that old story, lawyers are a jolly crew.

But while I’ve met countless attorneys in my life, most of my non-lawyer friends haven’t. They interact with people in their own lines of work, fellow teachers and programmers and necromancers and so on. Which means when my non-lawyer friends have a legal question, they naturally turn to one of the few lawyers they know. And because of this blog’s popularity, even complete strangers sometimes contact me with legal issues.

And I don’t mind answering legal questions, generally. One of the purposes of this blog is to tackle these common issues. In fact a year ago, at the beginning of April, I delved into some very common issues that could affect anyone. It was a popular piece so I thought I’d do something similar this year. And the timing couldn’t be better because one legal subject kept popping up. 

Somehow when I started working on this piece, something stirred inside me. I realized I had a deep passion for the subject I never knew was there. Criminal defense was well and good for those that care about constitutions and civil rights and keeping innocent people out of jail, but as I looked deeper into this ancient practice, I discovered a higher calling.

Now don’t worry, I’m not moving to Italy. And I’ve never been Catholic. But the subject is so timely, so relevant I couldn’t help but be awed. Today’s post is really scratching the surface—there’s a lot of fascinating information out there. But I think after you read this brief overviews you’ll understand why this office will soon be BetterNoahPopeLawyer.

What is a pope?

A pope is the supreme leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. There cannot be multiple popes; there is only The Pope at one time. The pope is the spiritual successor to Saint Peter, who of course founded the church in Antioch, itself famous as a source of much ancient weaponry. 

The pope’s full title is Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Emperor of India, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Watcher of the Seals, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Warden of the North, Servant of the Servants of God. The pope’s authority exists in two forms: diplomatic and spiritual.

Diplomatically the pope is the sovereign of the Vatican City, a city/state within Rome. As the elected absolute monarch of the nation, the pope enjoys the ability to enter into treaties, export goods, and declare war. As the Vatican City is completely landlocked and 110 acres large, none of that comes up very much.

The pope’s greater authority comes from his spiritual powers, as the papacy, the Holy See, leader of the 1.1 billion members of the Catholic Church. And these are pretty impressive spiritual powers. Under the tenet of papal infallibility, the pope can do no wrong while acting in his official capacity. I’ll quote from the Catholic Catechism (it’s a great read!):

“For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

So it’s a pretty big deal. Interestingly, if a current pope breaks from church precedent he of course was correct do so. The past popes were also correct to adhere to that precedent and do the exact opposite. So…everyone was right. It’s a pretty positive outlook, all in all.

Who can be pope?

Unfortunately if you’re wondering if you can be pope, the odds are you probably can’t be. But let’s break it down.

When there’s a vacancy (more on that in a bit) the College of Cardinals gets together to appoint a new pope. Technically almost any baptized person (well not any person, more on that in a bit too) can be elected to the position of pope. However, 1.1 billion members again, how are you going to get a cardinal’s attention to be elected to such a high position? A non-cardinal hasn’t been elected to the papacy in a while. How long? Well, since 1378.

Ok, how do you become a cardinal? The pope selects you to be a cardinal. There’s 206 of them so again, pretty small odds. But to be selected to be a cardinal in the first place you must be a priest.

Ok, how do you become a priest? Well you apply to seminary school, spend 6-8 years there, and then if the bishop calls you to the priesthood, there you go. You can’t ever have been married, or at least unmarried and never divorced. Also you have to be male.

Ok, why do you have to be male to be a priest? Well…that one eludes me. The best my research could find was that Jesus was a male. That’s why priests today are all two millennia old and Nazarethian. This article said women don’t have the soul for it, but I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that subject. Honestly I don’t get this one, so if someone wants to explain that tenet I’d appreciate it.

But there you go, if you become a priest who gets raised to the College of Cardinals and then get elected to the office during a vacancy, you’re pope. Simple enough.

Papal Vacancies and Filling the Office

Once elected pope you are pope for life or as long as you want the position. Most popes do pass away in office.

The death rites for a pope are fairly elaborate. First, when a pope is suspected to have died, the medical intern ceremonially uses a silver hammer to tap the head of the pope three times, in a ritual known as reperio lupus homine. Once the death is confirmed the pope’s ring of the fisherman is split in twain and their fireplace is converted to a cooking hearth.

 Of course a pope can resign the office. The only requirement is that the resignation was made free from duress. It matters not one whit whether anyone objects to a resignation, and they’d be wrong anyway since infallibility, etc. To be fair, while the current pope, Pope Francis, was raised up on his predecessor’s resignation, it doesn’t come up much. The pope to resign before Pope Benedict XVI of this year was of course Pope Gregory XII, who as we all remember resigned to heal the Western Schism. Are there good benefits for retired popes? G12’s resignation occurred in 1415, so frankly there’s not a lot of historical data to draw from.

But however the vacancy occurs a new pope will need to be elected. The way this works is that the College of Cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel in a process called convlex conclave. The cardinals fill out a ballot, titled in ordine ire domum eligo in summum pontificem. The ballots are sealed and placed in a vessel.

The individual votes are kept secret. Instead bystanders glean insight into the developments by the color of the smoke coming out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. Black smoke means an inconclusive vote. Blue smoke is a prayer to Tialoc for rain, green smoke means the cardinals are hungry, and so on. White smoke of course means a new pope was selected. That person receives the regalia of the office and the papacy is restored. 

As you can see, pope law has a rich and storied history. It is with great pleasure I take on the mantle of pope law expert to serve my clients’ needs in Seattle.

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The facts and circumstances of your case may differ from the matters in which results and testimonials have been provided. Every case is different, and each client’s case must be evaluated and handled on its own merits.