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Let’s dispatch one nagging question

February 25, 2013

Okay, my preference would have been for the pope simply to fix a conclave start-date and tell the world’s cardinals to show up or else, but what he did in Normas nonnullas works well enough. But one question is getting some traction out there: Some are wondering exactly how the conclave can start earlier than 15 full days after the vacancy of the see if any electors (say, Darmaatmadja and O’Brien) are absent (UDG 37).

Analogy: It’s common in organizational meeting minutes to distinguish between those who are present, those who are absent, and those who are excused. Now, neither absent-s nor excused-s are present, of course, but excused-s are not considered absent, either, are they. And UDG talks about waiting for those who are absent.

Benedict’s authorizing of an earlier conclave date under certain conditions authorizes, I suggest, resort to reasonable means to determine whether those conditions have been met. Darmaatmadja and O’Brien have declared their intention not to enter the conclave. There is no reason not to think that those are anything other than free and final choices; the pope has acknowledged both declarations (although I don’t think a papal acknowledgment of recusal is necessary for effectiveness). It would be unreasonable to wait up to two weeks, therefore, for grown men who have publicly declared their intention to decline appearing, to determine whether they will in fact not appear. Therefore, assuming the other 115 (by-then) eligible electors will have appeared, the conclave can start early.

Note, because Darmaatmadj’s recusal is based on physical infirmity, not only could he change his mind and go, he could even be admitted to the conclave after it starts (UDG 40). O’Brien, on the other hand, while he could change his mind and show up before the conclave starts (and if so he would have to be admitted, UDG 40), cannot show up after the conclave has started, whenever that is, and be admitted, because he cannot (and does not) plead infirmity as a reason for not attending.

If, finally, any other as yet undeclared elector does not show up, the remaining 114 would have to wait for him until 15 full days have run from the vacancy of the see (an awkwardness left in place by Normas). While one way of calculating 15 full days from 8 pm Rome time Feb 28 would let the conclave open at 8:01 pm Rome time on Mar 15, the better calculation is to count the 15 full days as beginning at midnight of March 1 (when the “period” of the vacancy begins) and thus being completed at 11:59:59 pm on March 15, meaning that the conclave could unquestionably start on March 16.

Here’s hoping some other points of UDG get clarified during the next pontificate, but what we have now works well enough, I think, even under the surprising conditions we have now.

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