ROME – Exactly one year from yesterday, assuming nothing unexpected happens in the meantime, Italian Cardinal Angelo Comastri will turn 80 and lose his right to vote in a papal election. By that point, ten of his fellow Princes of the Church also will have crossed the 80-year-old threshold, leaving the number of cardinal electors at precisely 120.
That number, 120, is the ceiling established by St. Paul VI in 1975 for the total body of cardinal electors, though popes ever since routinely have exceeded the limit when they distribute new red hats. The reasoning is that since you never know when an election will occur, by the time it happens the number probably will have come back down to around where it’s supposed to be. In 2005 and 2013, the actual number was 115.
(If you’ve ever wondered, the practical logic for the 120 ceiling is that Paul VI felt if the group were any larger, a conclave would become unwieldy. The spiritual basis comes in Acts 1:15, when the disciples, who are said to have numbered about 120, gathered to choose a successor to Judas as an apostle. I suppose the irony that the regulation of a papal election is, in part, based on the story of the apostle who betrayed Jesus scarcely needs pointing out.)
We can probably assume that between now and Sept. 17, 2023, Pope Francis won’t hold another consistory. So far, Francis has staged eight consistories, with an average gap of 14.5 months between them. As a result, we can take a look down the line right now at what the group of cardinal electors will look like the next time it hits that magic number of 120.
One key point: Of the 11 cardinals who will lose voting privileges over the next year, all are appointees of either Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI. By that point, of the 120 cardinals eligible to vote, 82 will have been appointed by Francis, representing 68.4 percent – in other words, above the two-thirds threshold needed to elect a pope.
Three observations about the group a year from now suggest themselves.
First, among the 11 cardinals who will age out, seven are Italian. That will leave the Italians with 14 cardinal electors, which is still the largest contingent of any single nation but considerably below their historical peak.
In fact, should the next conclave take place a year from now with this lineup of electors, the North American bloc actually would be equivalent to the Italians, since there would be 10 voting cardinals from the U.S. and four from Canada. Those numbers make the Americans the second-largest national group, and they also represent a historical peak for Canada.
Second, seen in continental terms, the distribution of voting cardinals isn’t dramatically different than when Francis took over.
Here’s how it will break down in a year’s time.
- Europe: 45 (38 from western Europe, 7 from central and eastern Europe)
- North America: 14
- South America: 21
- Asia: 21
- Africa: 16
- Oceania: 3
Europeans still will be significantly over-represented relative to their Catholic population. Worldwide, Europe accounts for just over 20 percent of the Catholic total of 1.3 billion people, but its 45 voting cardinals will represent 37.5 percent of the total.
Meanwhile, Brazil and Mexico will still have a good argument that they’re getting the shaft, despite a decade under history’s first Latin American pontiff.
Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, with around 125 million people, but it will have six voting cardinals. Do the math: If it happened a year from now, there would be just one vote in the next conclave for every 21 million Brazilian Catholics, but one for every 7 million Americans and for every 3.5 million Italians.
Mexico, the second-largest Catholic nation, has an even more dramatic case for under-representation. In a year’s time it will have 100 million Catholics but only two voting-age cardinals, meaning one vote for every 50 million people.
(In fairness, it should be said it’s not like Francis is favoring his native Argentina. His country likewise has only got two voting cardinals, and one of them, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, wasn’t even appointed by Francis. Sandri will age out next November.)
Third and finally, however, looking at the lineup by continent or country misses the point. The real impact of the Francis revolution is far more keenly felt in terms of where these voting cardinals come from within continents.
In general, Francis has bypassed established centers of ecclesiastical power and created cardinals in non-traditional venues.
In the United States, for instance, there are four dioceses which at one point or another were led by cardinals that don’t have one presently: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore and St. Louis. Meanwhile under Francis, Indianapolis briefly had a cardinal before Joseph Tobin relocated to Newark, and San Diego now has one.
In Europe, among the 15 cities with the largest Catholic populations, all of which have had cardinals at some point throughout history, only eight currently have one. Of that total, only four have been named by Pope Francis – the other four are holdovers from either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Archdioceses once considered automatic for a cardinal, such as Paris, Prague, Milan and Warsaw, are all currently without a Prince of the Church.
The same pattern applies pretty much everywhere else.
In the consistory last month, Francis created a new cardinal in Nigeria, which makes perfect sense given that it’s one of the Catholic powerhouses of Africa. However, he didn’t elevate the Archbishop of Abuja, the national capital, but rather Peter Okpaleke of the relatively obscure diocese of Ekwulobia. Similarly, he picked a Brazilian from the Amazon, an Italian from a small town in the north and a Ghanian from a small provincial city.
Reaching back further, when Francis created a cardinal in Haiti in 2014 he skipped the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince to elevate Cardinal Chibly Langlois of Les Cayes, which has a population of around 70,000 souls.
In historical terms, what’s happened under Francis is a break with the “institutional” model of naming cardinals. During the John Paul and Benedict years, it was fairly easy to anticipate the composition of a consistory – you’d simply go down the list of Vatican gigs and red-hat sees that always got cardinals, circle the ones that were presently empty, and you could usually guess at least two-thirds of the next crop.
Francis has adopted a more “pastoral” approach, meaning he elevates figures he regards as having the pastoral, spiritual and ecclesiological qualities he wants to promote, regardless of what institutional position they hold.
As a result, when the clock strikes midnight on Sept. 17, 2023, and the roster of cardinals eligible to vote returns to its theoretical cap of 120, it may not be possible to anticipate what they’ll do – but one can at least say for sure that it’ll be very much Francis’s men who do it.