ROME -- The Vatican announced a change in rules for electing a pope yesterday by reinstituting the traditional requirement that two-thirds of the cardinals in the conclave agree on a candidate, no matter how long the process takes.
The move reverses a decision made by Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who decided in 1996 that a two-thirds vote was needed in the early rounds but a simple majority would do in case of a stalemate after dozens of votes.
In a document released in Latin yesterday, Pope Benedict said he was returning to the traditional voting norm, requiring a two-thirds majority throughout. The document was signed by the pope and dated June 11.
"It would seem that Pope Benedict wants to ensure that whoever is elected pope enjoys the greatest possible consensus," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told the Associated Press.
The ruling surprised Vatican experts, but they cautioned against over-interpreting it.
"The basic logic is to make sure that the pope is a product of consensus and not of a political deal cut in a smoke-filled room," said John L. Allen Jr., who has written several books about the Roman Catholic Church and the current pope.
"It is to make sure the pope does not look like a leader of a faction but of the entire church," Allen said, adding that discussions over changing the voting rules had been under way for years.
Pope Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected April 19, 2005, in one of quickest conclaves in modern history. The voting was secret, but he was reportedly elected after four ballots, with 84 of the 115 votes, a comfortable margin over the necessary two-thirds.
Theories have been floated as to whether the traditional rule, had it been in place, might have hindered the election of Pope Benedict, though he went into the conclave as a strong candidate.
Sufficient opposition could have prevented a strong but divisive candidate from obtaining two-thirds of the votes in the early rounds but then might collapse once only a simple majority was needed. Allen said that he had investigated whether that played out in the election of Pope Benedict and that his reporting did not bear the theory out.
"This is Benedict the traditionalist getting back to tradition," Allen said.