At a briefing with members of the press today, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi acknowledged that it may be possible that the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor will begin sooner than the prescribed 15-20 days after the Holy See becomes vacant.
The ecclesial document dealing with many conclave particulars, Universi Dominici Gregis, specifies that “from the moment when the Apostolic See is lawfully vacant, the Cardinal electors who are present must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent. … But when a maximum of twenty days have elapsed from the beginning of the vacancy of the See, all the Cardinal electors present are obliged to proceed to the election.”
These rules were put in place with the expectation that the Holy See would become vacant with the death of the pope—likely a somewhat sudden event that might make it difficult for all the world’s cardinals to gather in Rome in a very short period of time. But in this case, the exact date the Chair of Peter will become “lawfully vacant” is known—February 28. Many commentators, including canonist Edward Peters, have questioned whether it will be necessary this time around to wait more than two weeks for the College of Cardinals to assemble.
It is possible for Pope Benedict to change the 15-to-20-day rule before he leaves office; what is more likely, according to Father Lombardi, is that the cardinals present in Rome in first days of the sede vacante will make the decision. From Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden:
“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 concern 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.
John Allen reports that some in the Vatican feel March 10 would be a suitable date for beginning the conclave:
One hypothesis making the rounds is that the authorities who take control during an interregnum, meaning Cardinal Angelo Sodano as dean of the College of Cardinals and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as camerlengo, could propose an early date for the conclave and then put it up for a vote among all the cardinals present in Rome on the first day of the sede vacante, meaning March 1. In terms of what that date might be, some believe that Sunday, March 10, is a good candidate. It’s a Sunday, and the “Mass for Electing the Pope” could be celebrated that day along with an opening ballot, while the real work would begin Monday.
UPDATE: Edward Peters argues that only the pope can move up the date of the conclave:
There is nothing ambiguous about the two-week waiting period set out in UDG 37 and—long story made short—ambiguities in the law, not inconveniences, are what are subject to ‘interpretation’. Any other changes to the plain text of pontifical law of UDG can be made only by the pontifical Legislator. Sede vacante nihil innovetur. If Benedict leaves office without having taken action on UDG, and the date of the conclave is moved up (or back for that matter), for any reason outside of accommodating unforeseen impossibilities, it will be at odds with the normative text of UDG and would set a very dangerous example for future conclaves.
I agree that March 15 is far too long to wait to begin choosing a new pope. But the proper solution, in my view, is for the Legislator to derogate from UDG 37 by either (A) setting an earlier conclave start date or (B) expressly delegating the interregnal cardinalatial commission to fix an earlier date.