JIM CREES: Congress could learn from conclave

I followed the recent election of Pope Francis with quite a bit of interest. Although I am not Catholic, I find the workings of the church, (and the Church Universal), interesting.

I am both a history and a theology buff. During my observation of the Catholic church’s most recent leadership selection process, I was stuck by two things.

First, this was really the first election of a Pope that was not tainted by the sorrow of the death of a previous Pope. I wonder how the selection process was changed or influenced by this difference in spirit and attitude?

Secondly, I was impressed that the process didn’t waver from the traditions involved in choosing a new Pope, despite the fact that the former Pope was still alive.

I just thought it interesting, so I did a bit of studying about the selection of a Pope from a historical point of view.

Wow! There are some great stories tucked away in the historical record.

One thing I discovered for myself is that the conclave — that gathering of elector Cardinals to select a Pope — was not always the way they did business.

Once upon a time, Popes were selected by simple acclamation or by a variety of other methods. This whole conclave things appears to be relatively new by historic standards.

One more famous conclave got me thinking about the lessons we could learn from history.

Back in the day, conclaves could last months … even years. The assembled Cardinals held these long conclaves for two reasons.

First, they couldn’t agree politically on who the next Pope would be. Second, they just loved getting away from home. Life was not exactly comfortable back then, and any long-term break from life in the hinterlands was a welcome change.

Simply put, conclaves were sometimes like an ecclesiastical Spring Break.

Party time!

Then, when Pope Clement IV died in 1268, things got a bit crazy. Clement had died in the town of Viterbo, Italy. Apparently the tradition once was that the conclave would be held where the previous Pope had died, (also there were all sort of political issues at the time.)

So, the elector Cardinals assembled in Viterbo.

And the conclave went on … and on … and on …

It was the longest conclave in history. There was none of this waiting with bated breath in St. Peter’s Square anticipating a sighting of the white smoke stuff. The faithful of the Catholic Church waited for a new Pope … and waited … and waited … until they finally had enough.

As the Cardinals assembled one day in 1269, the people simply locked them in. Closed the doors and sealed the place up.

“You give us our Pope,” they demanded, “We’ll give you the keys.”

The people of Viterbo, with the approval of their civic leaders, refused to give the Cardinals anything to make their life better. The princes of the church were reduced to bread and water once a day.

That didn’t work. So the domestic authority declared that as long was there was no selection of a Pope, the Cardinals would not get paid — they could collect no ecclesiastical taxes or personal salary.

Then, when even that didn’t force the issue, the good folks of Viterbo simply climbed up to the rooftop of the chapel — the Palazzo die Papi — in which the conclave was being held, and removed all the roofing tiles exposing the Cardinals to the elements. Those elements can be pretty harsh in Italian mountain towns!

The action got some results, but only until the Cardinals threatened to excommunicate the entire town if they didn’t repair the roof. Then, it still took another year to select Pope Gregory X. (I kinda like Gregory X since he was the first Pope to strongly suggest it wasn’t cool to kill the Jews.)

Church leadership decided in 1274, that this idea of sequestering the Cardinal electors into a closed area and limited their access to all the goodies to which a prince of the church might become accustomed was a pretty good idea.

The conclave became a closed session.

Gregory X also took the sequester a bit further and declared that if a decision in selecting a new pope wasn’t reached within four days, food rations would be cut. If that didn’t help, rations would be cut once again on the ninth day of the conclave.

This formula of rationing changed a couple times over the years, but the idea stayed the same. Hungry guys tend to make tough decisions quicker.

So, here’s my idea — why can’t what worked in Viterbo not work in Washington, DC?

Today we have a situation in which Democrats and Republicans alike simply refuse to work together, although they all claim to be moved by some secular spirit — the will of the people.

Congress and the president barely nod to each other, and relations between conservatives and liberals is positively abusive.

So … next time they all gather to discuss the budget, the debt ceiling, the appointment of a cabinet member, a budget extension resolution, or whatever, “We The People” ought to just lock ‘em in, and keep them at the job until the problem at hand is resolved.

Lock them in. Give them decent food, but nothing too exciting. Let them sleep on cots. Cut their pay by increments until they receive nothing. This is, after all, a maker-not-taker economy. Pay them what they earn for what they do!

Lock them in a congressional conclave.

I bet they’d get things done a lot quicker and more efficiently if they weren’t standing in front of the TV cameras three or four hours a day, and Tweeting or Facebooking how bad the other guys are treating the nation.

Lock ‘em up.

The idea worked for the Catholic church.

In 1269, it took the Cardinals two years to select a Pope.

This year it took ‘em one day.

 

Jim Crees is the features editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer. He can be reached at jcrees@pioneergroup.com.

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