As had been widely expected, today the Vatican released a motu proprio signed by Pope Benedict XVI that modifies some of the rules regarding a conclave to elect a new pope. Dated February 22—the feast of the Chair of St. Peter—the document allows the College of Cardinals to open the conclave before the previously-mandated 15-day waiting period after the sede vacante begins. It also specifies that any individual assisting with the conclave who violates the oath of secrecy regarding the proceedings will be automatically excommunicated. The Latin is here; an official English translation has yet to be released by the Vatican.
By a modification to paragraph n. 37 of UDG: Pope Benedict XVI allows for the College of Cardinals to begin the Conclave before fifteen days have passed from the beginning of the period sede vacante, provided that all voting Cardinals are present. The modification also provides that the Conclave must begin no more than twenty days after the beginning of the sede vacante, even if all the electors are not present.
By a modification to paragraph n. 48: The oath of secrecy is extended to the individuals mentioned in Paragraph 55,2, among whom are the two “trustworthy technicians” who have the task of assisting the competent officers of the College in assuring that no audio-visual equipment for recording or transmitting has been installed by anyone in the areas mentioned, and particularly in the Sistine Chapel itself, where the acts of the election are carried out.
By a modification to the text of paragraph 55,3: The punishment for any violation of the oath of secrecy is to be excommunication latae sententiae (the old text provided for “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future Pope”).
Canonist Edward Peters notes that the motu proprio also makes clear that the cardinal-electors cannot be kept from participating in the conclave:
Another aspect of Benedict’s motu proprio catches my eye, namely, its reiteration that no otherwise-eligible elector can, for any reason, be barred from participation in the conclave. Over the weekend I saw several chattering heads speculating about Cdl. Mahony arriving in Rome only to be politely shown the door. Nonsense. Mahony’s right to admittance is indisputable. As the pope will not disbar an eligible elector at this late date, only Mahony can resolve the complications that his participation in the conclave occasion.
Recap: As of this moment, there are 118 eligible electors. By Thursday, 8 pm Rome time, there will be 117. One of them, Darmaatmadja, has declared that he will not participate because of physical infirmity (as such, he would be allowed to change his mind and be admitted even if the conclave had started); another, O’Brien, has declared he will not participate for reasons unstated but apparent to all (as such, he would not be allowed to change his mind and be admitted once the conclave has started).
Meanwhile, Catholic News Agency reports, “A Vatican official speaking on background to CNA said Feb. 24 that the dates being discussed for the start of the conclave to elect Benedict XVI’s successor are somewhere between March 9th and 11th.”