A Catholic Solution to the Fiscal Cliff

Dec 17, 2012 | Updated Feb 16, 2013

Americans are frustrated with political gridlock in Congress and want to see their elected officials do their jobs. Congress has not passed a budget in more than three years. Worse yet, it has created an artificial crisis in the fiscal cliff, which will punish American citizens if Congress fails to deal with the budget.

There is a "Catholic" solution to this problem. My friends who work for social justice would point to Catholic social teaching, with its stress on the common good, solidarity and preferential option for the poor, and I would agree with them. But my "Catholic" solution is more pragmatic and process oriented. Apply the rules of papal conclaves. Lock up the members of Congress, take away their cellphones, and don't let them out until they pass a budget.

The Catholic Church adopted the conclave solution to deal with ecclesiastical gridlock. In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year-and-a-half before the election of Innocent IV and for three-and-a-half years before the installation of Gregory X. In the first case the election was finally forced by the senate and people of Rome, who locked up the cardinals until a pope was chosen in 1243. In the second case, the people of Viterbo in 1271 not only locked the cardinals in, but tore off the roof of the building and put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water until they elected a new pope.

The word "conclave" comes from the Latin, "with a key," as in locked with a key. Today the cardinals are locked in to ensure secrecy and to protect them from outside influence. Before the conclave begins, all cellphones, radios, televisions and Internet connections are removed. No letters or newspapers are permitted.

But the original purpose of the conclave was to force the cardinals to elect a new pope. The cardinals were in no hurry to elect a pope because they got to live off papal revenues during the interregnum and they preferred partying to electing a new pope. Plus they had a two-thirds rule for electing popes which made it as difficult to get agreement as it is in the U.S. Senate with the filibuster rule.

The people of the United States should follow the example of the citizens of Viterbo. Lock up Congress and put the members on bread and water until they pass a budget.