But in the 1990s, John Paul II instituted an important amendment that prevents the possibility of deadlock but also greatly increases the likelihood of a much longer conclave than the usual two or three days.
The very origins of the conclave itself can be traced to the early years of the two-thirds rule, when cardinals sometimes found it difficult to find a compromise candidate who could command broad support. In 1271, after three years of deadlock, the weary citizens of Viterbo, — the town north of Rome where the popes then resided — imposed some incentives for a result: they locked the building where the voting was taking place, removed its roof and threatened the electors with a diet of bread and water. Thereafter, the cardinals would be locked in; the word conclave is derived from the Latin, meaning “with key.”
In 2005, for the first time in the modern era, the voting cardinals will have a degree of comfort, staying for the duration in the specially built Domus Sanctae Marthae. And some may have a good reason to stay longer than a couple of days.
The 1996 amendment stipulates that if no pope has been elected after about 30 ballots (an estimated 12 days), the cardinals by a simple majority can ditch the two-thirds rule and force the two leading contenders into a runoff.
So, what would happen, asked Rev. Thomas J. Reese in his 1996 book “Inside the Vatican,” if one candidate got just over 50 percent on the first afternoon of balloting or soon afterward? Mightn’t it be in the interests of his supporters to sit tight until it was time to switch to the simple-majority ballot?
Reese argued “there is no longer an incentive to find a consensus candidate.”
He added: “This change increases the likelihood of a more radical and ideological candidate being elected pope.” It could lead to the election of a pope, he said, who doesn’t have the support of almost half the cardinals.
Why the late pope, himself a compromise candidate in 1978, imposed the change is a mystery.
In 2005, though, if the conclave drags on for days, the outside world might reasonably assume that more than a third of the cardinals are strongly resisting the election of the leading contender.