A variation on sedevacantism, a bit more bizarre than your ordinary garden variety psychotic, are those who embrace the “Siri Thesis.” The “Siri Thesis has nothing to do with your I-phone but is the claim of some traditionalist Catholics that on the first day of the October 1958 conclave following the death of Pius XII, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, the archconservative Archbishop of Genoa, was elected on the third ballot—the first evening ballot—of the voting. They point out that at 5:55pm white smoke emanated from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel—the traditional sign that a new pope had been elected; at 6:00 pm the color of the smoke suddenly changed to black: the sign that there had not been a successful election. This created considerable confusion among both the crowd in Saint Peter’s Square and the television and radio commentators who were preparing to announce the election of a pope. The four ballots the following day all produced black smoke. On the third day of the conclave the Cardinals elected Angelo Roncalli, the more liberal Patriarch of Venice who took the name John XXIII.
According to the conspiracists, Cardinal Siri had been elected and chosen the name Gregory XVII. (Gregory XVI was a notoriously conservative pope in the 19th century, an omen that did not bode well for those who hoped for a more progressive change of direction in the Church after Pius XII.) However, after having accepted the papacy and choosing his name, he was forced under threat to renounce the papacy. One version of the story is that he was told that the Kremlin would attack the Vatican, possibly using a nuclear weapon, should he not resign. The other story, more commonly told, is that he was threatened with violence against himself and his family should he remain as pope. Supposedly he then renounced the papacy and the Cardinals continued to vote until two days later they chose Cardinal Roncalli who reigned for five years until his death in June, 1963. John XXIII Roncalli is the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, so hated by the katholic krazies in general and the sedevacantists in particular. Of course, at the time of his election no one even dreamed the new Pope would call a Council, nor could we imagine the sort of changes that would come into the Church as a result of John and his Council. In 1958 such things as Mass in the vernacular, Eucharistic Ministers, nuns in ordinary clothes, communion in the hand or communion in both kinds, laymen and laywomen with doctorates in Theology and Canon Law teaching in seminaries, parish councils and finance boards, peace and justice commissions, and a Jesuit Pope were all beyond imagining. Well, actually Mass in the vernacular was already being experimented with as was Communion in both kinds, but it was supposed to be a secret.
Siri advocates point out that if Cardinal Siri had accepted the election and was then coerced into resigning, his resignation would not be valid as a resignation under external pressure is by canon law invalid. (cf. Canon 185 of the 1917 Code) Thus Giuseppe Siri/Gregory XVII was valid pope until his 1989 death and Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II were all usurpers. Moreover, the Cardinals appointed by them would not be authentic Cardinals and thus the conclaves that elected Benedict XVI and Francis were false conclaves leaving the last two popes out in the canonical cold as well, the See of Peter being now empty.
Siri, of course, never claimed that he had been elected and while he was no fan of Vatican II, he maintained his loyalty to Popes John, Paul, and the two John Pauls. Those who have advanced the claim of his election were universally outspoken opponents of the Second Vatican Council such as ex-Jesuit Malachi Martin.
There are those among the Siri Papalists who claim that Cardinal Siri, secretly Gregory XVII, secretly appointed several Cardinals who, upon Siri’s death in 1989, elected a successor. This “pope,” they say, remains hidden for his own safety and is known only to a select few.
Some Siri Papalists also make the claim that Cardinal Siri was again elected in the 1963 conclave that followed the death of John XXIII and again was forced to step aside to make room for Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini who became Paul VI.
What are the possibilities of the claim that Cardinal Siri was indeed elected and forced aside?
I will point out one disturbing fact that supports their theory. The ballots are not burned after each vote, but after each voting session. There are two voting session each day—one in the morning and the other in the late afternoon. Each voting session traditionally consists of two ballots. Normally the smoke is seen around noon for the morning voting and around 7 for the evening voting. Six o’clock is early, quite early, for two ballots to have been taken. Normally if smoke appears at 10:30 or about 5:30 it is an indication that a pope was elected on the first of the two ballots in that voting session. Six is not only too early for an inconclusive second voting session; it is a bit late (but only a bit) for a successful first ballot election. So it is possible that a pope was elected on that first ballot of the second session and the ballots were burned because no further balloting was foreseen. (I hope this is clear with the two sessions, morning and evening, and each having two ballots.) It is possible, as I have said, for a pope to have been elected and the ballots burned. More likely, however, given the timing of the smoke, is that at the end of the first ballot of the afternoon session a discussion ensued suggesting no further balloting that afternoon but a meeting to discuss the process. The Cardinals are free to cancel a ballot, or even a session (two ballots), for either prayer or for a meeting. It has been known to happen, especially when a deadlock is foreseen and the Cardinals want to discuss the process.
OK, we have looked at the timing of the smoke which gives some credence to the claim that there was a Pope elected that first afternoon. Let’s look at the whole picture. Why isn’t likely that Cardial Siri was elected, accepted, the ballots burned for white smoke, and then the wet straw added to turn the smoke black when he resigned under pressure? (By the way—nowadays chemicals, not wet straw, are added to the ballots to darken the smoke because the wet straw was infamously unreliable in producing the dark smoke. The October 1958 Conclave was neither the first nor the last conclave that we saw smoke change color.)
There are several reasons why the Siri Thesis is not plausible. Let’s consider the course of events. The required 2/3 majority is reached but the scrutators (the Cardinals opening, examining, and counting the ballots aloud) gave to finish examining each ballot. Everyone knows that a Pope has been elected and as the count drones on the new Pope has time to think as to whether he will accept and what name he will reign under. The tallying of the ballots finished, the Dean of the Sacred College, Cardinal Tisserant, approaches Cardinal Siri and asks him if he accepts. He does. At this point, the signal is given for the sampietrino entrusted with burning the ballots to do his work and send up white smoke. The clock starts ticking; we have five minutes before the smoke changes color. Meanwhile the Cardinals lower the canopies over their thrones in the Sistine Chapel. The Cardinal Dean asks the new Pope under which name he will reign and Siri responds “Gregory XVII.” As the Cardinals stand and applaud, the new Pope is then taken to the robing room behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel to exchange his Cardinal’s regalia—in 1958 the scarlet cassock, fascia with gold tassels, scarlet stockings, black shoes with gold buckles, white rochet, pectoral cross, sapphire ring, scarlet winter cappa magna, and scarlet zucchetto and biretta—for the white cassock, fascia, stockings, red slippers, white rochet, red velvet and fur mozetta, white zucchetto, pectoral cross, papal ring, and gold embroidered red stole. I may have overlooked some garment or ornament here but you get the idea. It is a busy time of stripping a man down to his skivvies and dressing him up again in semi-unfamiliar glad rags. Not only the new Pope but those with him in the robing room, the so-called “room of tears” are somewhat dazed by what is happening. This is the first time in nineteen years that they have gone through this process, it will be somewhat unfamiliar. But it would be only at this time that someone, perhaps a cardinal, perhaps a valet, would be able to anonymously slip Pope Gregory XVI a note warning him to step down lest peril come to him and his family. And Gregory would have to be able to think clearly enough to make a decision, even a snap one. Most people would, at this point, if they did not pass out, need to sit down and have a glass of water and pull themselves together. Meanwhile, someone—or several—of those present would undoubtedly want to see what was in the note that stopped the new Pope in his tracks and be asking for the note or even snatching it from his hand. Then they still have get word out to the sampetrino to add the straw for the smoke to go black. In fact, someone has to make the mental connection in this confusion that they have to change from white to black smoke. This is a lot to happen in five minutes.
Ok, so now the smoke is black. Then you have the issue of explaining to the Cardinals who just elected the man that he resigned. There would certainly be some pandemonium. Any number of the Cardinals would be outraged. Their right to vote unimpeded had been tampered with. Gregory XVII would be castigated by some as a coward for not standing up to the threat. What kind of Pope was he to give in to an anonymous note? And then the College is supposed to role over and play dead, electing a liberal pope because a conservative one brought threats? And a 2/3 majority is going to keep silent about what happened when they were robbed of the candidate they elected? No one is going to speak out? Yeah, yeah, I know—they all have a vow of silence about what happens in the conclave, but they are also all gossips. We know all sorts of things that happened in papal conclaves, including when Cardinal Prince Jan Maurycy Paweł Puzyna de Kosielsko handed the 1903 conclave a note from the Emperor Franz Ferdinand vetoing the prospective choice of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, whom most people expected to be elected. Moreover, the conclave is over. A Pope has been elected and accepted. The secrecy is no longer binding. There were 51 men in that room and not one was ever to say the election had been tampered with.
No, the Siri thesis is a bit of a stretch, a bridge too far, for credibility. It is an obvious and desperate attempt by a disgruntled few to bypass the Second Vatican Council but the entire sedevacante movement is an attempt to deny fifty years of God’s grace in his Church.