With Pope Francis to name new cardinals in February, what's at stake?

With Pope Francis to name new cardinals in February, what's at stake?

The Catholic Church’s most exclusive club will have new members come February, as the Vatican announced Thursday Pope Francis will hold a consistory to create new cardinals Feb. 14-15. Almost nothing a pope does is as critical to the direction of Catholicism, in part because cardinals are the most influential

The Catholic Church’s most exclusive club will have new members come February, as the Vatican announced Thursday Pope Francis will hold a consistory to create new cardinals Feb. 14-15.

Almost nothing a pope does is as critical to the direction of Catholicism, in part because cardinals are the most influential leaders in the Church after the pontiff himself. In part, too, a pope shapes the future by selecting cardinals, because they will eventually elect his successor.

Although dates for the consistory have been announced, we don’t yet know the names.

Traditionally, the pope unveils the lineup about a month in advance in order to give the new Princes of the Church time to make plans to get to Rome, including putting together whatever delegation they may bring.

Francis held his first consistory last February, naming 16 new cardinals under the age of 80. If he sticks to protocol, this should be a slightly smaller group.

Rules imposed by Pope Paul VI set a limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, meaning men under the age of 80 and hence eligible to take part in a conclave.

There are 112 cardinals today under 80 and two more will turn 80 before February, leaving 10 spaces. Two other cardinals turn 80 in March and April, so if Francis wants to stick close to custom, he’ll probably appoint somewhere between 10 and 12 new Princes of the Church.

(Again, if he follows precedent, he may also name a handful of “honorary” cardinals, meaning men over the age of 80 and thus already barred from participating in a papal election. Generally these appointments amount to a kind of “lifetime achievement” award for service to the Church.)

A pope isn’t obliged, however, to follow the rules.

In 2001, John Paul II blew past the 120 limit by raising the total of voting-age cardinals to 135 in one of the largest consistories ever, with a total of 38 new under-80 cardinals, plus two more announced to the world who had previously been named in pectore, meaning secretly.

Last February, the take-away from Francis’ first round of new cardinals is that it was the “Consistory of the Peripheries.”

The global south had nine cardinals out of the 16, while only three red hats went to members of the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s administrative bureaucracy.

The pope also made a point of giving cardinals to places that never had them before, such as Haiti, and even within countries he tended to select smaller and often overlooked dioceses, such as Cotabato in the Philippines and Perugia in Italy. (Cotabato had never had a cardinal, and Perugia hadn’t since the era of the Papal States.)

In the case of Perugia, Francis bypassed traditional red-hat archdioceses such as Turin and Venice, indirectly sending a message that places long accustomed to being led by a cardinal should no longer feel entitled to the honor.

At the moment, the geographic breakdown of the College of Cardinals is as follows:

Europe: 54
Latin America: 16
North America: 15
Africa: 12
Asia: 11
Middle East: 2
Caribbean: 1
Oceania: 1

Doing the math, almost two-thirds of the voting cardinals (69) still come from the global north, while two-thirds of the world’s Catholic population today lives in the global south.

Benedict XVI began to address this imbalance in his last consistory in November 2012, in which he named seven new cardinals without a single European.

Francis continued to move towards realignment in his first consistory, and will presumably do so again next February.

In terms of candidates from the United States, there are three prelates from archdioceses traditionally led by a cardinal who are currently in line.

In order of how long they’ve been waiting, they are: Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who took over in March 2011; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who was appointed three months later in July 2011; and Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, tapped by Francis in September 2014 and installed in November.

(Baltimore used to be on that list, but its last leader, Edwin O’Brien, wasn’t made a cardinal until coming to Rome, and many observers believe it probably is no longer among the automatic red hat archdioceses.)

Francis could skip the United States altogether, citing the tradition that a new cardinal isn’t appointed for an archdiocese while its retired cardinal remains under the age of 80. (The reason is that it would seem odd if one archdiocese got two votes in a papal election.)

In Los Angeles, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony is 78; in Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali is 79; and in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George is 77.

However, Francis has already demonstrated a willingness to break with protocol. So the question would still be asked of why he chose not to in this case. Moreover, Rigali turns 80 in February and George is in ill health, so there would be a clear logic for setting tradition aside in at least those two cases.

No matter what Francis does, many Americans will be tempted to read it as a statement.

If a red hat goes to Gomez, it will be seen as history’s first pope from Latin America creating the first Hispanic cardinal in the United States, thereby giving a shout-out to the country’s burgeoning Latino Catholic population.

If it’s Chaput, it will be styled as a sign of confidence ahead of the pope’s trip to Philadelphia next September for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

It would also probably be seen as an indirect rebuttal to perceptions of a rift between the “liberal” Francis and the “conservative” Chaput, as well as to the idea that Francis is conducting an ideological purge at senior levels of the church.

If it’s Cupich, the perception may be that Francis is moving quickly to ensure that his hand-picked allies occupy the Church’s most senior posts. Critics may resurrect charges familiar from the John Paul era, albeit in a different ideological direction, that the pope is “stacking the deck” in the College of Cardinals.

If the pope bypasses the United States, it may be seen as a snub ahead of his American trip, since this will almost certainly be the only consistory between now and then. On the other hand, it could also be spun as an education for Americans in the realities of living in a global Church.

The “x factor” in all this is Francis’ predilection for reaching out to places that have traditionally been overlooked.

San Bernardino in California, for instance, now has a Catholic population of 1.6 million, which is larger than two American archdioceses currently led by cardinals (Washington, D.C., and Houston), not to mention larger than Philadelphia’s, but it doesn’t even presently have an archbishop.

A similar case could be made for Dallas, which now has a Catholic population of 1.2 million and is growing by the day.

Needless to say, there’s no problem about retired cardinals still under 80 in those places.

If Francis really wants to make a point about being a “Church of the peripheries,” he could do something even more novel – for instance, awarding a red hat to Anchorage, Alaska, by far the smallest archdiocese in the country with just under 28,000 Catholics, and certainly on the margins in a geographic sense.

Francis has shown himself to be a pope of surprises. That makes the looming announcement of who made the cut, likely to come in mid-January either before or after his Jan. 12-19 trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the stuff of drama.

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