the vatican has spoken

The Papal Conclave Explained in Reality TV Metaphors

This afternoon, black smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel signaled that the papal conclave’s first attempt to elect a new pope had failed. How can you, a layperson, understand the Vatican’s elaborate election proceedings? The Internet provides many guides. Most, however, neglect modern man’s greatest resource for understanding voting and selection procedures: reality television. We’ve created a guide to each step of the papal election, with metaphors from reality TV’s best . With 1.2 billion Catholics watching, Papal Conclave could be ratings gold.


“Bishop” Ralph Napierski meets Cardinal Sergio Sebastiana. Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

152 cardinals and their entourages arrived at Vatican City last week to support the 115 cardinals who will participate in the papal election. The conclave pregame included greetings, photo opportunities, congregations to discuss upcoming challenges, processions “in scarlet robes,” and the expulsion of bishop impersonator Ralph Napierski, whose disguise included an ill-fitting cassock and a scarf wrapped around his waist.

Reality TV Metaphor: The opening sequence of the premiere episode of an all-stars season of Top Chef or RuPaul’s Drag Race. Competitors arrive in symbolic clothing to greet old acquaintances, meet competitors they’ve only heard of, and assess upcoming tasks. (“Fascinating meeting Cardinals from all around the world,” tweeted Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles. He’s there to make friends.) Gatecrashing “bishop” Napierski added a Real Housewives of D.C. Michaele Salahi element.

SEALING THE CHAPEL: Arrival on Temptation Island

Procession of the Sacred College of Cardinals into the Sistine Chapel in 1978. Photo: Luciano Mellace/Corbis

Extra omnes!” the master of papal liturgical celebrations shouted this morning, ordering “everybody out” of the Sistine Chapel save for 115 cardinal electors and their support staff. (Producers and stylists, mainly.) No contact with the outside world is allowed. “The several cardinals with Twitter and Facebook accounts have been warned about using social media, and Wi-Fi will be blocked,” reports NPR. There are no phones; everyone is sworn to secrecy.

Reality TV Metaphor: Almost all competition-based reality shows ban contact with the outside world, to prevent leaks and cheating, and to enhance the group dynamic. The papal conclave uses group isolation to heighten spirituality in pursuit of a moral inevitability (God’s will). Meanwhile, a show like Temptation Island might use group isolation to heighten drama in pursuit of an immortal inevitability (adultery). Reality show contestants confide in video confessionals; cardinals may confide in a team of priests provided for taking confessions.

SCRUTINEER SELECTION: Project Runway Button Bag

Habemus Papam Tim Gunnam!

Before voting begins, the cardinals must organize who will take and count their votes — in reality TV parlance, they must choose team leaders. Agence France-Presse explains, “Lots are drawn to select nine of the cardinals, three of whom will serve as scrutineers, three infirmarii to collect the votes of cardinals who fall ill, and three revisers who check the ballot counting down by the scrutineers.”

Reality TV Metaphor: The dreaded Project Runway button bag, which hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn use to draw contestant names “at random” when assigning teams and designating tasks.

CASTING BALLOTS: Voting on Survivor

On “rectangular ballots,” cardinals handwrite their choice of pope, the AFP explains. The fold the ballot and walk to the altar, “carrying his vote in the air so that it can be clearly seen,” then drop their votes into a silver urn and return to their seats.

Reality TV Metaphor: Survivor, in which cast members walk across a bridge to a secret alcove where they handwrite votes on rectangular ballots, display their ballots before a camera, then place them in an urn. Just as the cardinals write “preferably in handwriting which cannot be identified as their own,” explaining their rationale only to an omniscient God, Survivor cast members explain themselves only to the omniscient television camera.

COUNTING BALLOTS: Elimination on Survivor

When the ballots are in, “scrutineers shake the urn to mix the votes,” and go through an elaborate process of counting the votes and reading them out loud while “piercing the ballots with a needle through the word Eligo (elect) and stringing them together.” A two-thirds majority is required for election. Afterwards, the ballots are burned in a stove that “emits black smoke if no pope has been elected and white smoke if the Catholic world has a new pope.”

Reality TV Metaphor: We return to Survivor, where fire and ceremony guide the voting process. Entering the Tribal Council, cast members light torches because “fire represents life.” After the ballots have been cast, the host plucks the votes from the urn and counts them, then extinguishes the eliminated cast member’s torch and announces, “The tribe has spoken.”

RE-VOTES: Reruns

Desperately seeking a Lost smoke monster joke. Photo: Michael Kappeler/Corbis

The election of a pope typically takes several rounds of voting, as the cardinals change their votes to cluster around one or two front-runners. The longest papal election was in the thirteenth century, when political jockeying triggered a three-year gridlock (and suggesting a level of intrigue that even the most backstabbing episode of Big Brother cannot rival). Three cardinals died before the voting ended, the Independent explains.

Reality TV Metaphor: Reruns, plus that annoying thing where reality TV shows repeat the same footage before and after commercial breaks, to hide the fact they don’t have enough material to fill an entire hour.

PROCLAMATION: The ‘Reveal’ on Any Makeover Show

Pope Benedict XVI at his 2005 proclamation. Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Once a two-thirds majority has agreed on a pope, the pope-elect must accept the election, announce his papal name, and retreat to the Sistine Chapel’s Room of Tears. There he vests himself in papal clothing and prays. Then he emerges onto the balcony of St. Peter’s, where his papacy is announced to fanfare and cheers.

Reality TV Metaphor: The final scene in a makeover show like What Not to Wear or The Swan. There is applause; God is often thanked; there are tears.

Papal Conclave Explained in Reality TV Metaphors