Cardinal Denies Involvement in Papal Election Reform, Calling Reports "a pure lie"

Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, takes possession of his titular church in Rome, the Church of the Gesù, on Dec. 8, 2022. | Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

A cardinal and canon lawyer has denied reports that he is involved in changing the papal election process to make it more synodal.

The Pillar and The Remnant websites reported Nov. 4 that Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, an expert in Church law closely associated with the Vatican, had been tasked by Pope Francis with drafting revisions to conclaves.

The changes being considered, they reported, include changing pre-conclave meetings, called general congregations, to employ Synod on Synodality-style small-group discussions and limiting participation in those meetings to cardinals eligible to vote — that is, cardinals under 80.

“I do not know anything about it and any implication I have in it is a pure lie,” Ghirlanda told EWTN News via email on Monday morning.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni also denied knowledge of such a document in a statement to CNA Nov. 6.


The Remnant also reported Nov. 4 that Pope Francis is considering a proposal by Ghirlanda to allow laypeople to participate in the conclave, including the vote for a new pope.

The Pillar, citing “a senior canon lawyer close to the Vatican,” reported that knowledge of the process to reform conclaves “is widespread in Vatican canonical circles, as is the role of Cardinal Ghirlanda.”

General congregations are preparatory meetings of the College of Cardinals held every day before the start of the election. They are a time for cardinals to familiarize themselves with the regulations concerning conclaves and, according to the norms in force, to “express their views on possible problems, ask for explanations in case of doubt, and make suggestions.”

During general congregations, cardinals can address the entire college. But one of the proposed changes, according to The Pillar, is to make these exchanges into “spiritual conversations” of smaller groups of cardinals, similar to the small-group discussions at the Synod on Synodality assembly in October.

The papal election process and the sede vacante, the period between a pope’s death or resignation and the election of his successor, are regulated by St. John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis and Pope Francis’ 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium.

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Pope Benedict XVI made two revisions to Universi Dominici Gregis during his papacy, stipulating that in case of a deadlock, the election must be decided by a two-thirds majority instead of a simple majority and that a conclave can start sooner or later than 15 days after a pope’s death.

Conclaves, which take place in the Sistine Chapel, are held under strict secrecy. The cardinals who participate take an oath to “observe absolute and perpetual secrecy” about the ballots and their scrutiny from anyone outside the College of Cardinals under penalty of automatic excommunication.

According to the law of the Holy See, during a sede vacante, “all heads of curial institutions and members cease from their office,” though secretaries “attend to the ordinary governance of curial institutions, taking care of ordinary business only.”

Pope Francis ruled earlier this year that the office of the auditor general, which is responsible for auditing the financial statements of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, and which does not have a secretary, may also continue its “ordinary administration” in the case of a vacant papal see.

The other positions that remain in place during a sede vacante are the major penitentiary, who deals with issues relating to the sacrament of confession and indulgences; the camerlengo, who oversees the preparations for a papal conclave and manages the administration of the Holy See during the interregnum; and the papal almoner.


Hannah Brockhaus is Catholic News Agency's senior Rome correspondent. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and has a degree in English from Truman State University in Missouri.