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THE PAPAL CONCLAVES.
HIERARCHY IN STATE OF FLUIDITY.
The system by which the Pope appoints a body of men who become the electors of a new Pope has not been invented, but has grown. Like other social systems and arrangements which have succeeded in establishing themselves in the world as durable institutions, it grew, and shaped itself as it grew, in accordance with the nature and tendencies of the body social out of which it sprung. The manner in which this system has acted for the effecting of the purposes for which it was intended has been exceedingly curious, very peculiar, and characteristic of the institution of which it became an important part; often very dramatic, always highly interesting, not only to the student of ecclesiastical history but to the observer of human nature; and not unfrequently, both in past and present times, influential in the highest degree on the contemporary history of Europe. It may be supposed, therefore, that some brief account of the method and working of this singular and unique institution, as it has been shaped by circumstances and human passions, might be not unacceptable to many the course of whose reading lies far out of the track which would make these matters necessarily familiar to them. A brief account it must be, though the story of several of the Conclaves might be so told separately as to occupy a volume as large as this, perhaps neither unprofitably nor unamusingly. But it is much if those whose special studies do not lead them in this direction can find time to read one small volume on the entire subject. It were useless to hope for more.
It is the purpose of this volume, then, to give such a general account of the working of the system by which for more than fifteen centuries the Popes have been chosen, as may be, it is hoped, made interesting to the general reader as distinguished from the special student. To the latter the present writer makes no pretence of offering anything that he does not already well know.
As in the case of other institutions which have grown up by a process of development and endogenous growth, the beginnings of this institution were rudimentary, irregular, confused, and uncertain. Much that in the course of generations became fixed, legalised, and in process of time fossilised, was in the beginning in a fluid and plastic condition. And the uncertainty and confused nature of the development in question was all the more marked in that it was in every respect abusive. It was, in truth, as has been said, a development, an endogenous growth, and natural outcome of the system from which it sprung. But none the less was the progress of its growth at every stage abusive, and in contradiction to the original and true principles of the body which developed it. There are organisms the most natural and most to be expected development of which is one in contradiction to the organic principles they profess. And it may probably be considered that the greatest social organism which the world has ever seen, the Catholic Church, may be one of these. It will be expedient, therefore, to trace very briefly the course of those events and arrangements which led to the definitive organisation of the Conclave, as the means by which a successor to St. Peter was to be provided. And that will be the business of this first book.
It has ever been a claim of the Catholic Church that it is the most democratic society that the world has yet seen. Logical accordance with the principles inculcated by its Founder and with the purposes for which it exists would require that it should be such. And the theory of the institution has at no time failed in accordance with those principles and purposes. Nor can it be denied that the practice of the Church has been in every age to a great extent in conformity with its theory in this respect. If, at all times—and certainly not less so in these later days than in older and less decency-loving times—the door of admission to the higher places and dignities of the Church has been more freely and more easily opened to the great and powerful ones of the earth, yet there has been no age from the earliest to the present in which its places of power, wealth, and dignity, in every grade, have not been accessible to the lowliest.