Electing Popes: Approval Balloting and Qualified-Majority Rule

Electing Popes: Approval Balloting and Qualified-Majority Rule

Josep M. Colomer and Iain McLean

The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1998)

Abstract: This article demonstrates that successive reforms in the rules for electing popes during the Middle Ages can be explained as a series of rational responses to political problems faced by the Church and by successive electors. Although the particular forms that these developments took could not have been predicted in advance, because they depended on certain contingencies (such as the unusual utility function of Celestine V), the process as a whole is illuminated from the perspective of social choice theory.

Excerpt: During the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Church devised clear and efficacious decision rules to protect its autonomy and its temporal power. The choice of rules to elect the pope was particularly important, since the Christian church can be viewed as a traditional monarchy in whuch the “royal” (papal) powers are based officially on God’s will. For many centuries, lack of rules provoked frequent conflicts and schisms, leaving the Christian church under the protection and domination of political powers, especially emperors and Italian noble families. Selecting rules to elect the pope was the result of a several-century process of clarifying (1) who the voters were; (2) how the ballots were to be organized; (3) what decision rules were to be used; and (4) what incentives the procedure was to provide for a sound and quick decision, avoiding strategic maneuvers or long pontifical vacancies.

Peter, the first “pope” of the Christian church, was chosen by the founder of the religion, but apparently Jesus did not prescribe the rules for appointing Peter’s successors. Since the pope was the bishop of Rome, whose primacy over the other bishops was only gradually asserted, the procedure of his election was initially similar to that of other bishops. In certain local churches, it was customary for bishops to choose their successors. Although this practice was forbidden by the council of Antioch in 341 and again by the council of Rome in 465, it survived in Rome until the sixth century. Thereafter, popes occasionally expressed opinions about their preferred successor, but bishops usually were elected by the Christian faithful (“the people”) – the clergy and the bishops of the province – under the chairmanship of the metropolitan.

Click here to read this article from the Spanish National Research Council

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!