ROME — “Preach always, and, when necessary, use words,” is a line frequently (though likely apocryphally) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. The papal version of the same idea might be formulated as, “Govern always, and, when necessary, issue decrees.”
That is to say, pretty much everything a pope does exercises leadership and shapes culture in the Church, whether or not it comes wrapped in a binding magisterial declaration. Today is an excellent illustration of the point, as Pope Francis created 17 new cardinals in an event called a “consistory,” 13 of whom will be eligible to elect his successor.
Francis delivered a talk this morning, which was notable for its plea to avoid in-fighting at a time when public crossfires involving bishops seem increasingly common. In reality, however, the most important statement of the day was made well in advance, in the form of his picks for new Princes of the Church.
Here then are three take-aways from today’s consistory, which is the third of Francis’s papacy and the first in which he’s awarded new red hats to cardinals from the United States.
(As a footnote, the appropriate ecclesiastical verb for what’s happening today is “create,” as in, the pope is “creating” 17 new cardinals. That phraseology leads to the cynical old Roman joke that only God and the pope can create something out of nothing!)
Consistory as Global Village
Francis is famously a pope of the peripheries, and nowhere is that drive to lift up previously ignored or marginalized places more clear than in how this pontiff awards red hats.
This time around, there are new cardinals from Papua New Guinea, the Central African Republic, Bangladesh and Mauritius. The last two, Bangladesh and Mauritius, have a combined Catholic population that doesn’t quite get to 700,000, making them essentially large parishes by the standards of many other places.
Today’s consistory builds on the previous two held by Pope Francis, in 2014 and 2015, in which he created cardinals from Nicaragua, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Capo Verde, and the Pacific island of Tonga. (By the time Francis is done, it seems plausible there won’t be an island nation left on earth without its own cardinal.)
While the internationalization of the College of Cardinals dates back at least to the era of Pope Paul VI in the late 1960s and 1970s, eroding the traditional Italian stranglehold on the institution, what’s striking under Francis is that his cardinals don’t just come from the other usual centers of global Catholic power, but literally from all over the map.
All this is calculated, of course, to ensure that the College of Cardinals is better reflective of the entire 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church around the world, especially places long accustomed to not really having a voice.
Seen through a political lens, there’s another implication worth considering: These appointments also make the next conclave, meaning the next time cardinals gather to elect a pope, far more difficult to handicap. Many of these cardinals represent cultures where the usual taxonomy of left v. right simply don’t apply, and they’re not part of the traditional networks of ecclesiastical influence and patronage.
As a result, they’re likely to bring fresh perspectives to the task of picking a pope, one more difficult to anticipate and, therefore, even more fascinating to watch unfold.
Shifting the balance of power in the U.S.
For the first time, Francis is creating new American cardinals: Blase Cupich in Chicago, Joseph Tobin in Newark (formerly of Indianapolis), and Kevin Farrell, head of his new department for family, laity and life (formerly of Dallas.)
All three would be seen as center-left figures in some ways reflecting the spirit of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, an approach to church life that appeared to recede in influence during the years of St. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Just in the days around today’s consistory, Tobin was issuing warnings about the church facing difficult years ahead fighting the Trump administration over immigration and refugees, and Farrell was chastising Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia over the restrictive guidelines Chaput issued to implement Francis’s document on the family, Amoris Laetitia.
Granted, the mere fact these three figures are now cardinals – two residential, one based in the Vatican – doesn’t automatically alter the landscape within the U.S. bishops’ conference. In fact, a face-value reading of the recent elections within the conference, in which Cardinal Daniel DiNardo was chosen president and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles vice-president, would be that the center-right camp is still the governing majority.
Inevitably, however, Cupich, Tobin and Farrell will now have greater influence in American church affairs, including grooming other bishops who could, over time, recalibrate the outlook and priorities of the conference.
In any event, it’s clear that Francis was making a definite ideological and pastoral statement with his American picks, which are destined to reverberate for some time to come.
The incredible shrinking Vatican
As of today, Pope Francis has created 44 of the cardinals who will elect his successor, of whom only six are Vatican officials. In this most recent crop, Farrell is the only one with a Vatican post, assuming one doesn’t include the pope’s ambassador in Syria, Mario Zenari, who’s part of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.
For those keeping score, that means that only 13 percent of Francis’s picks so far have gone to Vatican officials, whereas traditionally Vatican prelates have counted for over a quarter of the College of Cardinals, a share that was boosted under emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
Obviously, the net effect of these selections over time will be to reduce the influence of Vatican officials, not merely in the governance of the Church but also in the selection of the next pope.
The argument for such a transition, of course, is that the Vatican is supposed to be of service to the Church, not the other way around, and ensuring that the whole Church is better reflected in making decisions is a healthy thing.
On the other hand, Vatican officials often represent the institutional memory of the Church and provide a firebreak against the Church being swept away by the shifting tides of a given era’s fashions. As a generalization, they often represent a sort of “continuity vote” that can balance impulses for quick change.
A somewhat diminished “continuity vote” is thus another factor making the future more uncertain, more difficult to forecast, and thus a more compelling drama to watch.