When the See of Peter is vacant, it’s a perilous time for the absolute papal monarchy and the curial officials who maintain it. That’s because princes of the church from out of town show up and, like it or not, they are now the guys in charge of the Church. As in olden times, they may be tempted to, well, do the things church councils used to do and make ecclesiastical decisions on their own.
To minimize the danger of so terrible an eventuality, in 1996 Pope John Paul II issued Universi Dominici Gregis, which besides setting out the norms for electing a new pope forbids the cardinals from arrogating papal powers unto themselves. Its language is not weak. As in:
During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, laws issued by the Roman Pontiffs can in no way be corrected or modified, nor can anything be added or subtracted, nor a dispensation be given even from a part of them, especially with regard to the procedures governing the election of the Supreme Pontiff. Indeed, should anything be done or even attempted against this prescription, by my supreme authority I declare it null and void.
And yet, even JPII had to acknowledge that, sede vacante, the College of Cardinals is the only governing authority in town. Thus: “Should doubts arise concerning 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.” And: “In the same way, should there be a problem which, in the view of a majority of the assembled Cardinals, cannot be postponed until another time, the College of Cardinals may act according to the majority opinion.”
Sure enough, with Pope B16 safely emeritized within Castel Gandolfo, the cardinals have flocked to Rome and some of them are wanting to deal with problems they believe cannot be postponed. According to the AP, U.S. cardinals want to talk to “Vatican managers” about allegations of corruption and cronyism prior to electing the next pontiff.
“I would imagine that as we move along there will be questioning of cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed, and in that context anything can come up,” said U.S. Cardinal Francis George.
Meeting in preliminary “general congregation,” the red hats have asked to be briefed on the secret Vatileaks dossier on malfeasance in the Holy See that “the Holy See said” this week is to be reserved for the eyes of the new pope alone. Brazilian cardinals are demanding to inspect it themselves.
So far, the College is not asserting a right to universal (“even papal”) obedience, as the Council of Constance did in 1415 when last a pope resigned. But with reform of the Curia very much on the agenda, you can bet that the curiales are doing all they can to get the conclave under way and a new monarch elected and installed al più presto.