There Is a Lot Behind

It is a little over four years ago that the electoral body of the Coptic Church – more than 2,400 clerics, monks, and laypeople – elected their new Pope Tawadros II, successor of the late Shenouda III.

The word election is not quite correct: Tawadros was selected for office by a blindfolded young boy who drew one of three large folded pieces of paper from a ballot. You might have seen this spectacular moment on TV or somewhere in the internet.

The entire procedure of election needed several weeks of discussion, reflection, prayer, and fasting. An electoral committee consisting of nine bishops and nine laypeople played an important role in compiling a list of 17 eligible men, then narrowing it down to 7, then to 5, then the large electoral body chose 3 names by large consensus before the moment of the drawing eventually took place. This is, in a formalized and ceremonial manner, not far away from what we read in Acts 1 about the election of Matthias as apostle. Matthias was selected from two candidates who where both appointed by the assembly. So the Copts have a good reason to call their procedure apostolic election.

I do not know much about the Coptic Church and its bodies, and I do not want to ask what such a procedure would look like if it were transferred to the Catholic Church. I only want to ask: What might it be like to be part of such a procedure?

Although drawing by lots has a long tradition in European political history (several offices e.g. in antique Athens and in the famous medieval republics of Venice and Florence were selected by lot), the Catholic Church today does not use lots as a decider or at least as a tie breaker. Deans, abbots, priests’ councils, and other offices and bodies are elected, but there is always a rule to break an eventual tie: the one who was ordained the earliest wins, the oldest person wins, the chairperson of the electoral body decides, the pope decides, or whatever.

What might it be like to be appointed to office in such a procedure of human decision making with the lot having the final say, or to be one of the losers, or to be one of the electors?

Maybe the allotted person becomes a megalomaniac. If the drawing is strictly seen as a divine decision (cf. Acts 1:24, Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen), the elected person might consider himself God’s personal choice like a second Messiah. But I do not think this would happen. The preceding steps of the entire procedure should help the electors to sort out any potential megalomaniac before his name finds a place in the final ballot.

My scenario is a different one: The elected person will keep in mind until the end of his life that there were at least two others who could be at the same place with the same entitlement. I did not get my office because I was the best. I did not win a competition. I was chosen by consensus, but others were chosen by the same consensus. I did not earn the office with my skills or power, I just happened to come to my new place (cf. Sir 2:4, Accept whatever befalls you).

How about the non-elected? They are not real losers, they just happened not to be drawn (cf. Job 1:21, The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord). They were candidates of consensus, and this remains as a sign of trust by the community and as a sort of responsibility for the community.

And how about the electors? Campaigning for a personal favorite makes no sense. Any elector must be willing to find different eligible candidates, not knowing who of them will win. Corruption and simony are highly restricted – if not impossible at all – by the procedure itself.

If I am correct, the apostolic election does not generate losers in the strict sense. Instead it generates modest electors and a modest winner. And modesty is definitely not the worst for any ecclesiastical office (cf. Ps 115:1, Not to us, o Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory).


  1. I’ve been bleating about including lots in our selection procedures for the past few years. Lots are very much worth considering, but need to be considered in the context of a larger and deeper shift in leadership culture.

    The Venetian system is instructive because it’s not just lots, but a series of alternating steps*. The best analysis of the cause and effect of this in the Venetian government is found in the second volume S.E. Finer’s “The History of Government” (Finer has a refined handle on the comparative benefits and costs, but ultimately judges Venice as the longest-lived best-governed polity on the planet for which we have strong historical records for a few-hundred-year period).

    Venice had a relatively strongly closed ruling class oligarchy. That said, it had a strong cursus honorum system that, combined with its peculiar alternating vote-and-lots system, forced the elite clans to train their progeny to take responsibility for eventual governance. (Oh, and it helped that there were audits after departing office.) In other words, clan honor and fortunes had a deep stake in forming and molding the next generations of leaders to have good stewardship/fiduciary skills for the good of the Venetian state rather than just for private ends.

    In other words, it required a deep sense of that most medieval of values: collegiality in an ordered (hierarchical) organism. The sensibility of an ideally ordered monastery transferred and reimagined at the level of the state – where the secular abbot is not a divine right autocrat in the sense understood by early modern nation states.

    The result: If you had to live as a free but non-elite person for 75 years during the period from 1200 to 1700, chances are you’d have more good choices during that period living in Venice than most other polities (during parts of this period, other polities might rival it occasionally, but few if none as consistently – what’s remarkable was its comparative resilience).

    * To summarize the mechanics for the election of the Doge, from Wikipedia for convenient reference: Thirty members of the Great Council were chosen by lot, and then were reduced by lot to nine; the nine elected forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who elected twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine, and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were reduced again by lot to eleven, and the eleven elected the final forty-one who in turn elected the doge. No one could be elected except by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors. That’s just for the office of Doge. There were a host of intersecting offices in the Venetian state.

  2. Neither a consistory of electors or a system of lots can quell ecclesiastical politics. There will always be alliances, intrigue, and sabotage. Lots may delay these inevitabilities, but personal ambitions and arrogance will step forward in any case.

    Often Christ’s faithful and even observers from outside Catholicism have a good sense who the next pope will be before the cardinal-electors cast their rounds of placet or non placet. Some might view Pope Francis’s election as an exception to this rule, but some electors displayed interest in Jorge Bergoglio at the previous consistory. A lots system would generally favor senior clergy and already formed hierarchies. It is unlikely that a parish priest would suddenly be elevated to the leader of his tradition. The power structure and its gears are already turning regardless of which senior cleric is randomly picked.

    I do not find either system to be particularly fair. I do not see why Rome should be compelled to end rounds of balloting for the election of a pope.

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