Newswise — Virginia Tech history professor Frederic Baumgartner is an expert of the conclave. The Latin term literally means “with a key” and refers to the practice of locking cardinals in a room until they determine a new pope.

Baumgartner details the high drama of this event in his 2003 book “Behind Locked Doors — A History of the Papal Elections.” For part of his research, he spent a month in the Vatican archives, perusing various manuscripts, written in either Latin or Italian.

The mysterious practice of the conclave is accompanied by an oath to “observe absolute and perpetual secrecy.”

Unfortunately, we “know a great deal less about the conclaves of the last century than those of the 1600s,” Baumgartner said. When Pope Pius X was elected in 1903, he was so upset by revelations about the deliberations that he “ordered excommunication for anyone who released information about the conclave, even after its conclusion.”

“Official records of the vote tallies are kept in Vatican archives,” notes Baumgartner, but those tallies “are top secret, unless the new pope decides to release them.”

Onlookers will keep watch for the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel roof, signifying the process has been completed. This tradition is rather new to the process, beginning in 1914, according to Baumgartner.

Baumgarter says that this conclave could perhaps be the beginning of a new tradition, given the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, the first freely decided papal resignation since 1294.

“It would be most interesting,” Baumgartner said, “to learn what influence a living ex-pope has on the election, but given the tight secrecy, we are not likely to find out.”

Many wagers have been placed on the conclave’s outcome over the years and Baumgartner can attest that even the cardinals participated.

If Baumgartner were a betting man, he muses that the new pope will most certainly be a moderate conservative, “given there are no radical or even liberal cardinals; almost as certain, no theologian.”

In addition, Baumgartner said, “Benedict’s election in 2005 surprised me because of his age of 78, but if his abdication is seen as a positive thing worth repeating, it may not be so important that the pope be young, relatively speaking. In that case I feel that the frontrunner of the papabili (popeables) is Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan and formerly of Venice, who is 71.”

Baumgartner doubts that a new pope would make radical changes, particularly in policies over which American Catholics have often disagreed with Rome, such as abortion and birth control. “A possible exception, says Baumgartner, “would be clerical celibacy, which is considered to be a matter of church law, rather than divine law.”

Cardinals, who used to be confined to tiny dorms in the Vatican Palace, now stay in the spacious Domus Sancta Martha. They remain isolated from the outside world and are prohibited from using cellphones, pagers, or the Internet.

Baumgartner is the author of seven other books and a member of several historical groups, serving as past president of the American Catholic Historical Association. Baumgartner earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his undergraduate degree at Mount Saint Paul College in Waukesha, Wis.