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Papal conclave, 1878

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The Papal conclave of 1878 resulted from the death of Pope Pius IX in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on 7 February 1878. The conclave occurred in circumstances different from those of any previous conclave.

Unique circumstances

Cappella Sistina - 2005

The Sistine Chapel, new conclave location now that the Quirinal Palace was no longer available

The unique circumstances were

  • the longest reign of any other pope since Saint Peter, meant that Pius IX had had a greater opportunity than any pope in history to shape the College of Cardinals by selecting people who shared his world and religious vision.
  • the first conclave in which the person selected would reign as pope but not as sovereign of the Papal States, the latter having been swept away by the unification of Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
  • a change of venue, as the previous venue used in most papal conclaves in the 19th century, the former papal residence, the Quirinal Palace, was no longer in papal ownership and was now the palace of Umberto I, King of Italy.

Questions facing the cardinals

When the cardinals assembled, they faced a dilemma. Should they choose a pope who would continue to espouse Pius IX's reactionary religious and political views, and would continue to refuse to accept Italy's Law of Guarantees guaranteeing the pope religious liberty in the Kingdom of Italy? Or should they turn away from the policies of Pius IX and choose a more liberal pope who could work for reconciliation with the King of Italy? Would choosing such a policy be seen as a betrayal of Pius IX, the self-proclaimed "Prisoner in the Vatican"?

Other broader issues included

Though not explicitly spelt out, another issue was raised by the length of Pope Pius' reign. Should they elect another young pope who might reign for decades, or should they go for an older man and so a shorter reign?


With what many Churchmen believed was the "unstable" and "anti-Catholic" situation in a Rome that was no longer controlled by the Church, some cardinals, notably the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, urged that the conclave be moved outside Rome, perhaps even out of Italy to Spain under the Restoration. However the Camerlengo, Gioachino Cardinal Pecci, advocated otherwise, with an initial vote among cardinals to move to Spain being overturned in a later vote. The conclave finally assembled in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican on 18 February 1878.

Unusually for conclaves, the voting patterns became public.

Ballot 1 (morning 19 Feb)

On the first ballot, held on the morning of the 19 February the votes were

  • Cardinal Pecci 19 votes
  • Cardinal Bilio 6 votes
  • Cardinal Franchi 4 votes

Ballot 2 (afternoon 19 Feb)

  • Pecci 26
  • Bilio 7
  • Franchi 2

Ballot 3 (morning 20 February)

  • Pecci 44 - elected

Result, implications, and aftermath

The election of Cardinal Pecci, who took the regnal name of Pope Leo XIII, was a victory for the liberals. Pecci had been an effective bishop whose diocese had moved from the Papal States to the Kingdom of Italy successfully, without Church problems. He was seen as a diplomatic pragmatist with the tact and flexibility opponents of the previous pope believed Pius IX lacked. At 68 Leo was also young enough to do the job without hindrance of health problems, but old enough to offer the prospect of a relatively short reign of ten to fifteen years. Whereas Pius IX was seen as having isolated the Church from international opinion (his locking of Jews into ghettos and treatment of minorities had been condemned by world leaders such as William Ewart Gladstone), Leo was seen as an "internationalist" who could earn back the Vatican some international respect.

Pope Leo came to be seen as embodying a dramatic difference to the papacy of Pope Pius. In one area however they were similar. Though always seemingly in poor health and delicate he reigned for an unexpected 25 years, becoming the third longest-reigning pope in history (until his record was surpassed by Pope John Paul II on March 14, 2004. Far from being a short reigned pope, Leo surprised all by living to the age of 93, dying 20 July 1903, making him the oldest Pope at the time of his passing.

Conclave factfile

Pius ix

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), whose reactionary policies the cardinals rejected in selecting the liberal Cardinal Pecci

  • Dates: 18 February - 20 February 1878
Absent 3
Present 61
Africa 0
Latin America 0
North America 0
Asia 0
Europe 61
Oceania 0
Mid-East 0
Italians 40
NEW POPE LEO XIII (1878-1903)

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