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Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda SJ, on the day he was made cardinal, during the August 2022 consistory.Mazur/

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — A prominent Vatican cardinal and canon lawyer favored by Pope Francis has told LifeSiteNews that reports he is drawing up a document with the Pope to reform the process for a papal conclave are “absolutely false.”

In an exclusive statement provided to LifeSiteNews on Sunday evening, Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., rejected as “absolutely false” reports that he is in the midst of plans to reform the manner of electing a new Pope.

“Before your email I had no news about the Conclave reform that you mention,” wrote the 81-year-old Jesuit cardinal, raised to the cardinalate by Francis in August 2022. “I went to the Internet and saw that it is said that I am working with the Pope for such reform.”

“This is absolutely false,” he added when questioned if he could confirm the reports which were published over the weekend regarding his rumored reforming of papal conclaves. “Since I am not aware of this, I see no point in a meeting,” he added.

Reports of conclave reformation

Late Saturday night, The Pillar and shortly afterwards The Remnant reported that Ghirlanda has been tasked by Pope Francis to draw up draft reforms for the papal conclave process. The Pillar wrote that Ghirlanda was looking at making reforms to Pope John Paul II’s 1996 document governing the conclave – Universi dominici gregis (UDG). 

Citing “sources close to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State” in its report, The Pillar wrote that the rumored changes would be of two kinds, and would affect the general congregations which precede the actual voting undertaken by cardinals in the Sistine Chapel.  

The general congregations, as outlined by UDG, are open to all cardinals whether over the voting cut-off age bracket of 80 or not. 

While not forming part of the official conclave election procedure in one sense, the general congregations are a particularly key time for the college of cardinals to exchange ideas and arguments, as well as finalizing the procedures for the conclave. These discussions, per UDG paragraph 59, are bound by the same “obligation of secrecy” as that which governs voting for a new pope. 

READ: Pope Francis’ favorite pro-LGBT nun says he is ‘laying the groundwork’ for changing teaching on homosexuality

The first reported change, according to the Pillar’s “senior sources,” would include excluding all cardinals aged over 80 from the general congregations. This would mean that only those cardinals eligible to elect the new pope – those under 80 years old – could be present in the congregations.

A second reported change would alter the manner in which the congregations themselves took place, being modeled on a more synodal style. The Pillar wrote:

The other prospective change would reportedly modify the format of the general congregation – limiting the opportunity for speeches to the whole College of Cardinals, which would be replaced by sessions of similar style to the synod of synodality, in which participants sit at round tables of 10 or so participants for ‘spiritual conversations,’ followed by reports to the entire assembly summarizing those table discussions.

Lay voters at the conclave?

However, The Remnant added that the College of Cardinals would no longer be the sole electors of the new pope. According to The Remnant’s report, Ghirlanda is looking to persuade Pope Francis to allow male and female members of the laity, along with religious sisters, to form up to 25 percent of those electing the pope.

The Remnant cited “well-informed Vatican sources” in the report, attesting that Ghirlanda has been meeting occasionally with Pope Francis since spring, and meeting “weekly” from the end of August till early October.

The Pillar also alluded to lay electors being involved, writing somewhat differently to The Remnant that “[s]enior Roman clergy have told The Pillar that there have also been rumors that Pope Francis has considered the idea of inviting lay people to participate in general congregations.” The outlet added it was unable to confirm the veracity of this information. 

Additional testimony has been made supporting the weekend’s reports. LifeSiteNews understands that Italian Catholic news outlet Messa in Latino’s Vatican sources support the veracity of the reported conclave reforms. 

Who is Ghirlanda?

A recently minted cardinal, Ghirlanda is Pope Francis’ go-to canon lawyer, having been heavily involved in Francis’ 2022 reform of the Roman Curia, Praedicate evangelium, which made waves by permitting laypeople to hold leading positions within the Curia.

READ: Pope Francis reforms Roman Curia, says any layperson can hold ‘governance’ positions in Vatican

More recently Ghirlanda has replaced Cardinal Raymond Burke as Patron of the Order of Malta.

A former rector of Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University, Ghirlanda has controversially argued that papal power in the Church is “unlimited.”

READ: Cdl. Müller: Papal advisor’s theory of Pope’s ‘unlimited’ power ‘contradicts entire Catholic tradition’

According to Cardinal Gerhard Müller, during the 2022 consistory Ghirlanda presented the “theory of the papacy as an unlimited power of divine right over the whole Church, as if the Pope were a Deus in terris [God on earth].” Such a view, stated Müller, “contradicts the entire Catholic tradition, and especially the Second Vatican Council, that the bishops and priests have only the authority to perform sacramental acts, while the Pope is in sole possession of all jurisdiction, which he can delegate at will to clerics or laymen.”

What change is possible? 

Following the emergence of Saturday’s reports regarding reforming papal conclave procedures, consternation broke out amongst Catholics in response to the news. Indeed, Canon 349 of the current 1983 Code of Canon Law stipulates that it is only the cardinals who elect a new pope. 

The canon reads: 

The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform, especially in the daily care of the universal Church.

In his introduction to Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II notes that “it is in fact an indisputable principle that the Roman Pontiff has the right to define and adapt to changing times the manner of designating the person called to assume the Petrine succession in the Roman See.”

But he adds that the body who elects the Pope is the college of cardinals: 

… based on a millennial practice sanctioned by specific canonical norms and confirmed by an explicit provision of the current Code of Canon Law (Canon 349), this body is made up of the College of Cardinals of Holy Roman Church…

Confirming therefore the norm of the current Code of Canon Law (cf. Canon 349), which reflects the millennial practice of the Church, I once more affirm that the College of electors of the Supreme Pontiff is composed solely of the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church. 

In them one finds expressed in a remarkable synthesis the two aspects which characterize the figure and office of the Roman Pontiff: Roman, because identified with the Bishop of the Church in Rome and thus closely linked to the clergy of this City, represented by the Cardinals of the presbyteral and diaconal titles of Rome, and to the Cardinal Bishops of the suburbicarian Sees; Pontiff of the universal Church, because called to represent visibly the unseen Pastor who leads his whole flock to the pastures of eternal life. The universality of the Church is clearly expressed in the very composition of the College of Cardinals, whose members come from every continent.

Speaking to LifeSiteNews about the reported conclave changes, and a Pope’s power over the conclave rules, canonist Father Gerald Murray noted that “the Pope has the power and authority to change the rules governing the selection of his successor.” 

The Pope “also has the power and authority to change the composition of the College of Cardinals, including changing the requirements for membership in the college, even if,” continued Murray, “such changes would destroy the nature of the college as a group of bishops, and by exception of some priests, according to canon 351, 1.” 

Murray highlighted how, should the rumored reforms for lay electors be requested, then the current version of Canon Law would not suffice. “If lay persons and consecrated religious were admitted to the College of Cardinals, then Book II, Chapter III of the Code of Canon Law would have to be re-written to specify the various canonical provisions that by nature can only apply to those cardinals who are in Holy Orders, and to determine what other provisions apply to both ordained cardinals and to non-ordained male and female lay and consecrated religious cardinals.”

Continuing, Murray defended the technical possibility of Pope Francis effecting the rumored changes:

He also has the power and authority to determine, as an alternative, that the election of his successors would be carried out by a conclave that consists of both cardinals and non-cardinals. In this scenario, the non-cardinal electors would not be members of the College of Cardinals, but they would participate in an activity (a conclave) formerly reserved by law only to members of the College of Cardinals under the age of 80 years.

It is worth noting is that the Synod on Synodality’s October 2023 synthesis report has already called for a change in Canon Law. As LifeSiteNews reported, the document expressed an “urgent” call for Canon Law to be changed in order to allow more female governance roles.

READ: Synod on Synodality report pushes female deacons and lay governance but avoids giving firm answers

“The Holy Father has significantly increased the number of women in positions of responsibility in the Roman Curia. The same should happen at other levels of Church life. Canon law should be adapted accordingly,” the text reads, in a passage which passed 319–27.