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ROME – Although cardinals of the Catholic Church have many responsibilities, nothing they’ll ever do is more important than electing the next pope. As a result, every time a sitting pope announces a new crop of cardinals, one key question is what impact the selections appear to have on the next conclave whenever it might come.
With regard to the 21 new cardinals Pope Francis announced Sunday, including 16 under 80 and thus eligible to vote for the next pope, the question appears simultaneously easier and maddeningly more difficult to answer.
To begin with the easy part, it seems clear that, in the main, the 16 new electors are largely Francis loyalists, meaning prelates who share the pope’s broadly progressive vision. That’s certainly true of the new American cardinal, for instance, Robert McElroy of San Diego, considered one of the staunchest liberals in the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Indeed, in several instances Francis seems to have bypassed important archdioceses traditionally led by cardinals in favor of smaller venues in the same neighborhood, with the common denominator being that those smaller places are led by his allies.
McElroy was given the red hat instead of Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, among the largest and most complex archdioceses in the world, one that’s been led by a cardinal since 1953, and which is only about 120 miles away. Yet while McElroy is seen as a staunch liberal in church politics, Gomez is usually perceived as more conservative.
One can see the same pattern with the choice of Bishop Peter Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, Nigeria, over Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of the national capital of Abuja, and also the selection of Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como in Italy over Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan. Como, the much smaller venue, is less than 30 miles from the sprawling metropolis of Milan.
The bottom line is these picks seem to boost the prospects for a “continuity” vote in the next conclave, meaning someone cut from the same cloth as Francis.
Mathematics reinforce that supposition, since as of August 27, when the consistory takes place in Rome, Francis will have named 83 out of 132 total voting-age cardinals at that point. That’s extremely close to the 87 cardinals it would require to achieve a two-thirds vote, should all 132 of those electors actually take part in a conclave.
However, a caveat is in order: The last conclave was populated with John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointees and yet they elected Francis, so anything is possible.
On the “harder to handicap” side of the ledger, most observers also would say there’s no obvious new papabile, meaning candidate to be the next pope, in this crop of cardinals. Had Francis named the 63-year-old Kaigama, for instance, cardinals seeking to break with the current regime might have looked to him as a sort of “center-right” alternative, with the additional cachet of being the first pope from sub-Saharan Africa.
To take another alternative, had Francis selected Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, he immediately would have figured in speculation about the next conclave – not only because he would represent a sympathy vote in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, but because Shevchuk is seen as a formidable churchman in his own right.
(Granted, there’s an ecclesiological argument to be made that Eastern prelates shouldn’t become cardinals because it’s an office of the Latin church, but that’s never stopped popes from offering the red hat before, or, for that matter, stopped Eastern prelates from accepting.)
It’s also true that at least a handful of these new cardinals might face challenges as papal candidates on the basis of their track record on clerical sex abuse cases. Cantoni from Como, for example, was investigated by civil authorities in Italy in 2008 for allegedly covering up an abuse charge while he was the vicar for clergy, and again in 2017 he was interviewed on an Italian TV program about his role in allegedly covering up abuse in a Vatican pre-seminary sponsored by the Como diocese.
Cardinal-designate Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, meanwhile, who serves as president of the Vatican City State, is also a member of the Legion of Christ, and some might worry his standing could be compromised by links to the order’s founder, the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who was found guilty of abuse by the Vatican in 2006.
Perhaps the basic reason, however, that this crop of cardinals makes anticipating the outcome of the next conclave more difficult is because so many of the picks are relative unknowns, in keeping with Francis’s broad policy of reaching out to the peripheries.
It’s exceedingly difficult to project how the new cardinal from, say, Mongolia, is likely to vote in the next conclave, or from East Timor, or the first Indian cardinal from the Dalit underclass.
(Some observers believe the policy of distributing red hats to the peripheries may favor the candidacy of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, seen as a strong Francis ally and also a product of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which has long had a presence in many of these far-flung locations. It was Zuppi, for instance, who helped negotiate the Mozambique peace accords that ended the country’s civil war in 1992, which gives him strong “street cred” in the region. That, however, is just one hunch among many.)
Moreover, the fact that so many of Francis’s cardinals come from far-away locales and are men who don’t often make the scene in Rome means the cardinals today are relative strangers to one another. One veteran Vatican cardinal recently said that in the last conclave, he estimated he knew personally about two-thirds of the participants – were it to happen again today, he said, he’d know only about a third.
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously complicated things too, as it made international travel difficult for almost two years, meaning the opportunities for cardinals to interact in person were far more limited. In addition to discussing a recent reform of the Roman curia, presumably another reason Francis has asked all the world’s cardinals to gather in Rome for this consistory and then a couple days of meetings is to allow them to begin to get to know one another.
This lack of familiarity suggests a good share of the electorate the next time around will be learning as they go, as opposed to arriving in Rome with preferences already set. That reality could augur one of two outcomes – either a protracted conclave because of the difficulties in achieving consensus across such a diverse set of personalities, or a quick one because many of these novice cardinals will simply follow the lead of someone they trust to know the lay of the land.
In other words, we just don’t know how it will play out … which, of course, is part of the adventure of it all.
From the beginning, Pope Francis has scrambled the traditional calculus in the Catholic Church in all sorts of ways. Perhaps it’s only right and just, therefore, that his picks for the next conclave also seem destined to keep us guessing.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr