For example, a story on the Fox News Latino website begins like this:
Let the politicking begin.
The world’s eyes are on Rome as the leaderless Roman Catholic Church begins its 2,000-year-old process of choosing a pope.
Groan. Okay, sure, there are politics involved in this sort of thing, in the broadest sense, as the cardinals present their competing visions for the church, try to build or renew alliances with those whose visions are comparable, and discern possible leaders from among their ranks. But it's not, so far as we have ever heard, Tammany Hall. Offices are not bought and sold; the cardinals are not men who have the power to twist each other's arms, to any great degree.
But the main problem with Fox's lede is that remark about "its 2,000-year-old process of choosing a pope." Oh, piffle.
The process is no more than 742 years old, which is still old as heck by secular standards, but only medium-old by church standards. As we've said before, the conclave system was imposed by the secular power to spur some recalcitrant cardinals; it was put into canon law by the Pope they elected, Gregory X, in 1274. It has been updated occasionally since then, including an overhaul by John Paul II and a few tweaks by Benedict XVI -- although it is still, clearly, the same process.
But beneath the lock-in aspect of the process, there is another discrete element, the method of scutiny -- meaning direct election by all the cardinals. This replaces two older methods, both of which enjoyed great currency in their time: acclamation (about which you have probably read romantic things in Church History courses) and compromissum, which seems to have been the formation of a committee to appoint a pope. In Universi Dominici Gregis, John Paul mentions the "difficulty" of this latter process, which required the frequent promulgation of new rules. We shudder to imagine.
Mind you, there are elements of the system much older than the conclave itself. Popes, like other bishops, seem originally to have been chosen by the clergy of their diocese, in this case Rome. The office of "cardinal," a word once applied generally to the pastors of principal parishes in many cities, emerged gradually through the Middle Ages. It was only after 1029, though, that the Roman cardinals came to have principal responsibility (after the Holy Spirit, one hopes) for the election of a pope. According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, it was only after 1179 that cardinals became the sole electors.
It is possible, depending upon how one reads St Cyprian's description of the election of Pope Cornelius, that in the early days laypeople also had a voice in the decision. It is certain that, as late as the Second Lateran Council, in 1139, some laypeople (Roman nobles, as well as the lower clergy, who by that time were no longer electors) had the right of refusal.
We mention this only to make the point that Fox has fallen into the trap of imagining that everything the Roman Catholic Church does, it does just as it has always done. This is not true, nor does Rome make any such claim. (The Orthodox often do make this claim for themselves, which is exasperating. We wish they would stop.)
Fox is also stretching things a bit when it describes Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals will stay, as "posh." The pictures we have seen seem ... nice. Certainly better than a borrowed cot in the hallway of the Apostolic Palace, curtained off with a bedsheet. But not posh.