Sede vacante

Sede vacante (Latin for 'the seat being vacant'[lower-alpha 1]) is a term for the state of an episcopal see while without a bishop. In the canon law of the Catholic Church, the term is used to refer to the vacancy of any see of a particular church, but it comes into especially wide journalistic use when the see is that of the papacy.

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Vacancy of the Holy See

After the death or resignation of a pope, the Holy See enters a period of sede vacante. In this case the particular church is the Diocese of Rome and the "vacant seat" is the cathedra of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome. During this period, the Holy See is administered by a regency of the College of Cardinals.

According to Universi Dominici gregis, the government of the Holy See and the administration of the Catholic Church during sede vacante falls to the College of Cardinals, but in a very limited capacity. At the same time, all the heads of the departments of the Roman Curia "cease to exercise" their offices. The exceptions are the Cardinal Camerlengo, who is charged with managing the property of the Holy See, and the Major Penitentiary, who continues to exercise his normal role. If either has to do something which normally requires the assent of the Pope, he has to submit it to the College of Cardinals. Papal legates continue to exercise their diplomatic roles overseas, and both the Vicar General of Rome and the Vicar General for the Vatican City State continue to exercise their pastoral role during this period. The postal administration of the Vatican City State prepares and issues special postage stamps for use during this particular period, known as "sede vacante stamps".

The coat of arms of the Holy See also changes during this period. The papal tiara over the keys is replaced with the umbraculum or ombrellino in Italian. This symbolizes both the lack of a Pope and the governance of the Camerlengo over the temporalities of the Holy See. As further indication, the Camerlengo ornaments his arms with this symbol during this period, which he subsequently removes once a pope is elected. Previously during this period the arms of the Camerlengo appeared on commemorative Vatican lira coinage. It now makes its appearance on Vatican euro coins, which are legal tender in all Eurozone states.

The interregnum is usually highlighted by the funeral Mass of the deceased pope, the general congregations of the College of Cardinals for determining the particulars of the election, and finally culminates in the papal conclave to elect a successor. Once a new pope has been elected (and ordained bishop if necessary) the sede vacante period officially ends, even before the papal inauguration.

Cardinals present in Rome are required to wait at least fifteen days after the start of the vacancy before they hold the conclave to elect the new Pope. After twenty days have elapsed, they must hold the conclave, even if some cardinals are missing. The period from the death of the Pope to the start of the conclave was often shorter but, after Cardinal William Henry O'Connell had arrived just too late for two conclaves in a row, Pius XI extended the time limit. With the next conclave in 1939, cardinals began to travel by air. Days before his resignation in February 2013, Benedict XVI amended the rules to allow the cardinals to begin the conclave sooner, if all voting cardinals are present.[1] Historically, sede vacante periods have often been quite lengthy, lasting many months, or even years, due to lengthy deadlocked conclaves.

The most recent period of sede vacante of the Holy See began on 28 February 2013, after the resignation of Benedict XVI,[2] and ended on 13 March 2013 with the election of Pope Francis, a period of 13 days.

The longest period without a Pope in the last 250 years was the approximately half year from the death in prison of Pius VI in 1799 and the election of Pius VII in Venice in 1800.

List of extended sede vacante periods

Whilst conclaves and papal elections are generally completed in short order, there have been several periods when the papal chair has been vacant for months or even years.

The following is a table of sede vacante periods in excess of a year:

Preceding PopeFollowing PopeBeginningEndingDuration
Clement IVGregory X29 November 12681 September 12712 years 10 months
Nicholas IVCelestine V4 April 12925 July 12942 years 3 months
Clement VJohn XXII20 April 13142 August 13162 years 3 months
Gregory XIIMartin V4 July 141511 November 14172 years 5 months

List of sede vacante periods since 1799

Preceding PopeFollowing PopeBeginningEndingDuration[3]
Pius VIPius VII29 August 179914 March 1800197 days
Pius VIILeo XII20 August 182328 September 182339 days
Leo XIIPius VIII10 February 182931 March 182949 days
Pius VIIIGregory XVI30 November 18302 February 183163 days
Gregory XVIPius IX1 June 184616 June 184615 days
Pius IXLeo XIII7 February 187820 February 187813 days
Leo XIIIPius X20 July 19034 August 190315 days
Pius XBenedict XV20 August 19143 September 191414 days
Benedict XVPius XI22 January 19226 February 192215 days
Pius XIPius XII10 February 19392 March 193920 days
Pius XIIJohn XXIII9 October 195828 October 195819 days
John XXIIIPaul VI3 June 196321 June 196318 days
Paul VIJohn Paul I6 August 197826 August 197820 days
John Paul IJohn Paul II28 September 197816 October 197818 days
John Paul IIBenedict XVI2 April 200519 April 200517 days
Benedict XVIFrancis28 February 201313 March 201313 days

Other Roman Catholic dioceses

The term "sede vacante" can be applied to other Catholic dioceses outside of Rome. In such cases, this means that the particular diocesan bishop has either died, resigned, transferred to a different diocese, or lost his office and a replacement has not yet been named. If there is a coadjutor bishop for the diocese, then this period does not take place, as the coadjutor bishop (or coadjutor archbishop, in the case of an archdiocese) immediately succeeds to the episcopal see.

Within eight days after the episcopal see is known to be vacant, the college of consultors (or the cathedral chapter in some countries)[4] is obliged to elect a diocesan administrator.[5] The administrator they choose must be a priest or bishop who is at least 35 years old.[6]

If the college of consultors fails to elect a qualifying person within the time allotted, the choice of diocesan administrator passes to the metropolitan archbishop or, if the metropolitan see is vacant, to the senior-most by appointment of the suffragan bishops.[7]

Before the election of the diocesan administrator of a vacant see, the governance of the see is entrusted, with the powers of a vicar general, to the auxiliary bishop, if there is one, or to the senior among them, if there are several, otherwise to the college of consultors as a whole. The diocesan administrator has greater powers, essentially those of a bishop except for matters excepted by the nature of the matter or expressly by law.[8] Canon law subjects his activity to various legal restrictions and to special supervision by the college of consultors (as for example canons 272 and 485).

Vicars general and episcopal vicars lose their powers sede vacante if they are not bishops;[9] the vicars that are themselves bishops retain the powers they had before the see fell vacant, which they are to exercise under the authority of the administrator.[10]

Other uses

The term has been adopted in Sedevacantism, an extreme[11][12][13] strand of the Catholic traditionalist movement. Sedevacantists believe that all popes since the Second Vatican Council have been heretics, and that therefore the see of Rome is vacant.

See also


  1. The phrase is the ablative case of sedes vacans ("vacant seat"), used here as an ablative absolute.


  1. "Motu proprio ''Normas nonnullas''". Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  2. "Declaration of Resignation,, 11 Feb 2013". Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  3. As is usual in English, in canon law also (Code of Canon Law, canon 203) the initial day is not counted in calculating the length of a period, unless the period began with the beginning of the day.
  4. See Codex Iuris Canonici Canon 502 § 3 (noting that an episcopal conference can transfer the functions of the consultors to the cathedral chapter).
  5. "Code of Canon Law, canon 421 §1". 4 May 2007. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  6. Code of Canon Law, canon 425 §1. The word used (sacerdos) applies also to a bishop, not just a priest.
  7. "Code of Canon Law, canons 421 §2 and 425 §3". 4 May 2007. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  8. "Code of Canon Law, canons 426-427". 4 May 2007. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  9. Codex Iuris Canonici Canon 481 § 1.
  10. Codex Iuris Canonici Canon 409 § 2.
  11. Eugene V. Gallagher, W. Michael Ashcraft (editors), Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America (Greenwood Publishing Group 2006 ISBN 978-0-31305078-7), p. 16
  12. William J. Collinge, Historical Dictionary of Catholicism (Scarecrow Press 2012 ISBN 978-0-81085755-1), p. 434
  13. Mary Jo Weaver, R. Scott Appleby (editors), Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America (Indiana University Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-25332922-6), p. 257
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