As part of the Conclave, a number of people, in addition to the Cardinals, must take oaths. The most recent will be the one they take today at the start of the election. The Cardinal Dean, Cardinal Sodano, will read the following text:
We, the Cardinal electors present in this election of the Supreme Pontiff promise, pledge and swear, as individuals and as a group, to observe faithfully and scrupulously the prescriptions contained in the Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, published on 22 February 1996. We likewise promise, pledge and swear that whichever of us by divine disposition is elected Roman Pontiff will commit himself faithfully to carrying out the munus Petrinum of Pastor of the Universal Church and will not fail to affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and the liberty of the Holy See. In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting; we promise and swear not to break this secret in any way, either during or after the election of the new Pontiff, unless explicit authorization is granted by the same Pontiff; and never to lend support or favor to any interference, opposition or any other form of intervention, whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree or any group of people or individuals might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman Pontiff.Then each Cardinal in turn will place his hand on the Gospels and swear to the foregoing.
The taking of oaths, while controversial for some Protestant denominations, has long been acceptable in the Catholic Church. Over the course of the centuries, the Church has a developed understanding of the nature of oaths, both theologically and legally.
Canon law defines the nature of an oath as: “the invocation of the divine Name as witness to the truth.” (CIC 1199) We usually consider oaths in regards to a witness in a court action. Truth is, of course, the correlation between objective reality and my own internal knowledge of it. The internal knowledge can only be expressed by an external manifestation—by telling what I know. Of course, given our fallen human nature, it is possible for us to deliberate break the correlation between what we know and what we say. The idea of the oath is that we assert the witness of God—who knows both the objective reality and the truth of our hearts—to the correlation between our external words and our internal knowledge of the truth.
In addition, the oath can be similar to a vow in that a person swears his intention to carry out a certain act. Again, God is invoked as a witness to the truth of the person’s intention. A man taking an oath does this not by making God testify, but by relying on the authority of God. Put another way, the man who takes an oath asserts that were God asked, he would agree with the oath taker.
As an oath is by its very nature an act of religion. In classical Catholic understanding, acts of religion do not mean what we mean in the modern secular use of the word. Rather, religion is a virtue that is a species of the virtue of justice. As justice is about giving another his due, the most important act of justice is to give God his due, which is religion. So the fulfillment of oath involves doing justice to God. As such, as an act of religion that relies specifically on the greater certainty and power of God, an oath is also inherently an act of worship. Oaths gain their force because the one making them ties the truth of his statement to his relationship with God, and thus his very salvation.
This is why, in the Church, the taking of an oath is an extremely grave matter. For many of the Fathers of the Church oaths were to be avoided. Although not going quite that far, even St. Thomas recognizes that oaths should be taken very carefully:
Even as a medicine is useful for healing, and yet, the stronger it is, the greater harm it does if it be taken unduly, so too an oath is useful indeed as a means of confirmation, yet the greater the reverence it demands the more dangerous it is, unless it be employed aright… (ST, q. II-II, q. 89, a. 5, ad 3)Thus the Angelic Doctor offers this advice to anyone who might take an oath: “he who ventures to swear on holy things should do so fasting, with all propriety and fear of God.” (ST, II-II, q. 89, a. 10.) One might also recall the words of St. Thomas More to his daughter Meg, as given in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again"
This gravity is expressed also in the penalty for its violation. As Benedict XVI made clear during his pontificate, the penalty for violating this particular oath is excommunication latae sententiae, that is automatically.
The matters over which the Cardinals will decide affects the functioning of the Church, and the salvation of souls. It is of the gravest of acts, and it is also a deeply spiritual act. The presence of oaths helps to emphasize the spiritual nature of the undertaking, as well as the gravity of observing what has been determined to be the best ordering of the process.