Most modern democratic countries have a chain of command which can be triggered in case of disastrous events and is intended to ensure the continuity of the functioning of the country.

This chain of command also relies on the fact that there is a plan to get back to normality. This usually means that the person in command has a set of elections to call (at a gouvernemental level) or people are automatically promoted to the missing positions (army, companies, ...).

How would that work with the Catholic Church?

Let's imagine a case that during papal election all the electors (cardinals) die (accident, terrorist attack, ...). Let's also imagine that all of the cardinals are present (which is very likely).

Is there a plan for such situation?

I am curious about that fact because in a democratic country the solution are popular elections (which bring in new rulers), in other institutions people would be automatically promoted to the new functions promotion. In contrast, the Catholic Church only has a handful of electors (compared to the whole Church) and cardinals are explicitly nominated by the Pope (and nobody else).

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    You might get a better answer to this on Christianity.SE - they are usually more up to speed on Canon Law.
    – CDJB
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 8:24
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    You can't treat the Vatican as a normal secular country. In particular, it is believed that the choice of a Pope is divinely inspired. So the simple contingency is that "we pray" and "God provides" (or doesn't according to his will). In practice, Council can choose a conclave.
    – James K
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 9:03
  • I echo CDJB that Christianity SE might be able to help you out better. There are many Catholics there who might know what the Catholic Church plans better than some people here (like me, for instance).
    – user29681
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 5:08
  • Link to question on Christianity.SE, for anyone interested in a more theological point of view on this question.
    – CDJB
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 13:20

2 Answers 2


The Catholic church cannot be treated a "normal" state. The Pope is believed not to be chosen by Cardinals, but called by God, who divinely inspires the selection of the Pope. There would be a lot of prayer. Divine guidance would be sought. But then the Bishops would decide how to proceed. The meeting of bishops is called an ecumenical council. While the Pope has great authority in the Church, the highest level of Authority (below God) is the ecumenical council of bishops.

The council doesn't need to be summoned by a Pope to be valid, all the early councils were summoned by the Roman Emperor. If the bishops are gathered they have complete (and infallible) authority to decide on any aspect of church doctrine, law or procedure. An ecumenical council could be invited to form (by anyone, the remaining bishops could send out the invitations), and that council could either choose a pope, or choose cardinals to form a new conclave.

As with many of these apocalyptic questions, you are assuming that the rules, traditions and processes that have been designed to work in normal times, would be applied in the most extraordinary.

  • Thank you. So there is no "chain of command" where it is documented who will take over in order to summon the bishops. That could lead to a lot of internal tensions, I would have thought that there would be a default handling of the case where there is no space for interpretation, nor for individual actions outside of rules.
    – WoJ
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 21:05
  • No, but, unlike a regular state, if the government of the Vatican stops functioning, there are no schools, hospitals, police etc that stop working. So what if there is no pope for a year and a day. who cares about internal tensions? God is still in charge.
    – James K
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 21:19
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    Or a more up to date analogy, If the commission of the EU is somehow wiped out, each of the separate countries can still operate (perhaps less efficiently but still running) We can do without the commission of the EU, in much the same way as we can do without the Vatican, in extreme circumstances. Its not documented that God and the bishops take over, this is just the default in a feudal state, if there is no king, then the local leaders are in charge.
    – James K
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 21:21
  • by "we can do without the Vatican", you mean the dioceses ran by bishops? (which I believe are the first independent administrative structure after the Vatican)
    – WoJ
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 21:24

The rules for electing a new pope are given by the apostolic constitution, Universi Dominici gregis

On a quick read through, I can find no evidence that there is any plan for the event that the pope, and all 122 cardinal electors are killed more or less simultaneously. However, generally one divides the church into bishops, priests, and laity (in a sense the pope, cardinals and archbishops are just higher ranking bishops, all entrusted with the leadership of the church). And although Universi Dominici gregis itself forbids it, one could imagine that in extraordinary circumstances the Synod of Bishops would step up to the role of nominating a new body of electors.

It happens from time to time that countries hold some sort of constitutional convention to rewrite the rules. Often for less worthy reasons than you hypothesise. There is precedent for this sort of thing, for example the Council of Constance

Once a few generations have gone by, there might be a minority of people holding the (doubtless deemed heretical) belief that the papal line has ended. Generally, one would expect that the vast majority of Catholics would accept the new situation, especially if the new pope or one of successors retrospectively endorsed it.

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    "I can find any evidence" - did you mean "can't"?
    – D M
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 0:07

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