It’s Time for a Conclave — Not in Rome but in Washington!

How can we force government leaders to the table—and keep them there—until a solution is delivered?

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Note: I write this post with a certain degree of humor. I admit to a certain glee at the thought of locking our leaders in and gradually reducing their food supply until they reach a solution.

In light of the current impasse regarding a border wall and the partial government shutdown, it is worth exploring a feature from Catholic history: the conclave. The Church, too, has had periods when political divisions were so deep that only drastic measures could secure a way forward.

As most know, a conclave is an assembly of the College of Cardinals for the purpose of choosing a pope. The word “conclave” brings to mind a stormy period in the Church, especially in the 13th century, when political divisions were so deep that the cardinals could not come to a consensus on a pope. “Conclave” comes from the Latin cum clave (“with a key”). It refers to the fact that the cardinals were literally locked into the Vatican and not permitted to leave until a new pope had been selected.

Pope Gregory X established this process in 1274 in response to a period of three long years (1268-1271) without a pope because the cardinals could not reach a decision. The new procedures required the cardinal-electors to be locked in seclusion until a selection was made; further, their food supply was gradually reduced until they were permitted only bread, wine and water beginning on the ninth day.

Obviously, the cardinals were not too fond of these rules, and they were suspended in 1276. When elections began to get lengthy again, Pope Celestine V reinstated the rules (in 1294). With a few exceptions, the use of the conclave continues to this day. While food is no longer rationed, the cardinal-electors are secluded behind locked doors, cum clave, until a new pope is chosen.

So, the Church has encountered divisions so serious that only when the participants were forced to come up with a solution could the impasse be resolved in a reasonable amount of time.

In our current political standoff, a similar problem seems to exist. I do not wish to weigh in on who I believe is more to blame, but a standoff requires at least two parties.

I certainly am not a constitutional expert, but to my knowledge, there is no conclave-like method available in our form of governance. Even if there is no legal solution, am I foolish to wonder if someone could have the moral leadership to summon the key members in this standoff and lock them in a room until a solution/compromise is reached? Is that too much to ask?

I write as a priest in a Church that is more than 2000 years old, one that has encountered similar difficulties before and has set forth solutions. As political divisions increase in our country, is it time for us to institute some sort of process of binding arbitration/negotiation at the highest levels of government? Do such mechanisms already exist?

Some will argue that a shutdown serves the same purpose in our government that a conclave does in the Church, but there is a significant difference: the participants in this governmental impasse suffer little and are free to come and go, building their political fortunes all the while. As the days go by, the consequences for government employees and especially government contractors (who will not receive back pay) grow more serious. Some Americans care little for “bureaucrats,” but as pastor to many of them, I beg you to remember that they are human beings with real struggles in their near future.

Conclave or bust! With a certain degree of humor, I admit to some measure of glee at the thought of locking our leaders in and gradually reducing their food supply until they reach a solution. What form would that take in our system of government? Does anyone have the legal authority to require a binding, secluded meeting until a solution/compromise has emerged?

I fear that the comments on this post will devolve into arguments about who is (more) to blame; that is not what this is about. Clearly, an irresistible force has met an immovable object. The question is, how do we limit the collateral damage and force government leaders to the table—and keep them there—until a solution is delivered?