Typically speaking, about the most important thing any cardinal of the Catholic Church will ever do is to help pick a pope. As a result, one time-honored way of evaluating consistories, the events in which popes create new cardinals, is in terms of what they portend for the choice of that pope’s successor.
Applying that lens to the consistory over which Pope Francis presided on Wednesday, in which he created five new cardinals, the only honest answer any respectable vaticanista can give to the question of what it means for the next pope probably is, “Who knows?”
(To be clear, there is no indication – none, zero – that a papal vacancy is imminent. There’s no health crisis around Francis, and no signal he’s on the brink of resigning. That fact, however, doesn’t make speculation about what might come next any less irresistible.)
Perhaps the defining hallmark of Francis’s four consistories to date has been the global character of his picks. Including yesterday, Francis has now named cardinals from thirteen nations that have never had one before, including some extremely improbable locales – such as, for instance, the island nations of Tongo and Mauritius.
As a result, a healthy share of these new “Francis cardinals” come from outside the West, and thus from outside the usual analytical framework observers apply to Church affairs.
Generally speaking, what Westerners are most interested in is whether a given pope is appointing more “liberal” or “conservative” cardinals, and thus men inclined to steer the Church, should they become pope themselves one day, in a more progressive or traditional direction. Those categories, however, often don’t apply to non-Western cultures, where the issues that matter often don’t break along the fault lines of left v. right.
I learned that lesson roughly a decade ago, when I was in Uganda on a reporting trip and met with Catholic students studying political science at a university in Kampala. They were bright, articulate, and well-informed, and at one stage I asked, “So are you guys liberals or conservatives?”
There was an awkward moment of silence, after which one of the 20-something Ugandans said, “We know what those terms mean from our classes, but can you be more specific?”
Bear in mind this was the George W. Bush era in America, so I replied: “Do you like Bush or not?”
The immediate response was that while Bush had done some very good things for Africa, they didn’t really like the Iraq war, and so the verdict was a mixed bag. Finally, one of the students decided to just bottom-line things for me: “You asked if we’re liberals or conservatives,” he said. “I suppose by your standards, we’re both.”
The thing is, he meant it.
That holds true across many non-Western cultures, including the Catholic communities within those cultures. African Catholics, for instance, can be remarkably conservative on matters of sexual morality, but extremely progressive on social justice. Asians may have very liberal ideas on inter-religious dialogue, but be extremely pious and traditional in their devotional and liturgical practices.
Basically speaking, the push for ideological purity in terms of liberal v. conservative is an artifact of Western culture, and just isn’t shared in much of the rest of the world.
Further, many of the new cardinals Francis has created – almost 50 electors by now, almost 40 percent of the total under 80 who would elect a new pope – are relatively unknown figures, without a strong profile on the issues that typically mark the frontlines of Western Catholic debate.
In places such as Haiti, for instance, or Myanmar, or Papua New Guinea, tussles over Amoris Laetitia, or decentralization of the Church, or women deacons, often don’t have much traction, because the grinding realities of poverty, under-development and conflict tend to blot most else out of the sky, and they impose a different sense of priorities on Church leaders.
That’s not universally true. Many African cardinals, for instance, have been protagonists in the discussions around Amoris. Even in those cases, however, a close reading of where many of those cardinals stand on other issues would yield counter-intuitive results by Western standards.
(On the other hand, we got a reminder this week that some challenges are truly universal, when new Cardinal Jean Zerbo of Bamako in Mali had to be hustled out of the Vatican’s audience hall after getting his red hat when journalists began to pepper him with questions about accusations of financial misconduct. It was an experience with which a depressingly long list of Western bishops could easily identify.)
In very broad strokes, there probably are at least a couple of generalizations one can make about the psychology of the next conclave in light of Francis’s picks.
First, the increasingly global character of the College of Cardinals probably helps take geography off the table as a “voting issue” for the next pope. While it’s entirely possible the next pope could come from Africa or Asia, for instance, it’s equally possible it could be a European, including an Italian, if the right one is on the market when the time comes.
When there’s no real monopoly left, in other words, there’s less of a perceived need to break it.
Second, the increasingly diverse mix in the college also probably means the next pope will need to be someone who has a reasonably broad view of the world. He doesn’t actually need to have spent time in, say, Laos, or Burkina Faso, or any of the other far-flung venues where Francis has created cardinals, but it would certainly help if he’s perceived as someone who at least grasps that European or Western ways of seeing things aren’t necessarily applicable everywhere.
Beyond that, frankly, the next conclave, whenever it comes, may well shape up as one of the greatest unknowns in the recent history of the Catholic Church. So toss out the handicapping sheets, disregard conventional wisdom, and buckle up, because no matter what, it seems destined to be a wild ride.