What kind of College of Cardinals will Pope Francis create?

While his stated goals are praiseworthy, his methods of achieving them could in fact work against his intentions.

Soon Pope Francis will create 17 new cardinals for the Church, further deepening his imprint upon the Sacred College and on the Church in general. Pope Francis has given us an insight into his vision of what the cardinalate should be, and his latest choices reflect that vision. But it may be that some of his choices end up working against his aims.

Pope Francis’s priorities for the cardinalate have certainly been praiseworthy. One of his primary stated goals has been to reach out to the Church’s peripheries, bringing red hats to dioceses and countries that had never known them. That priority is reflected in the choices of new cardinals from the Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and Lesotho, as well as his choice of papal ambassador to “beloved and martyred Syria,” a sign of solidarity with that battered nation. This is certainly a praiseworthy practice, both in honoring the Catholic communities in places where they are minorities, and in bringing a greater breadth of perspective to Church governance.

Another distinctive note has been to move away from the notion that certain dioceses would automatically be headed by cardinals. Bishops of large and historically important sees like Venice have been passed over in favor of choices such as the archbishop of Agrigento, whose diocese includes Lampedusa, one of the chief entry points for Middle Eastern and North African migrants into Europe—certainly a periphery! The pope’s intention is to combat careerism amongst the clergy, and to prevent the cardinalate from being viewed as a reward for accomplishments. In his address at the 2015 consistory, Pope Francis said, “The cardinalate is certainly an honor, but it is not honorific. This we already know from its name—‘cardinal’—from the word ‘cardo,’ a hinge. As such it is not a kind of accessory, a decoration, like an honorary title. Rather, it is a pivot, a point of support and movement essential for the life of the community.” This too is laudable.

Pope Francis has placed special emphasis on battling careerism and clericalism during his pontificate. In his scathing critique of the Vatican bureaucracy in his pre-Christmas message in 2014 in which he named several “spiritual diseases” that plague that body, one was that of “idolizing superiors,” “the disease of those who court their superiors in the hope of gaining their favor. They are victims of careerism and opportunism; they honor persons and not God (cf. Mt 23:8-12). They serve thinking only of what they can get and not of what they should give. Small-minded persons, unhappy and inspired only by their own lethal selfishness (cf. Gal 5:16-25).” Thus, his new criteria for selecting cardinals is geared toward avoiding that end. Yet the Holy Father’s own model may produce a worse effect.

For example: on the one hand, the effort to reach out to the peripheries is a noble goal, and could well be employed to re-cast the college into a body truly representative of the universal Church, rather than having 40 percent of the body composed of clerics from an increasingly unobservant Italian church. But not all of the selections fit into this category. Who are the others chosen? Take as an example the three Americans Pope Francis has named in this latest consistory—the first American cardinals he has created in his pontificate: Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago; Bishop Kevin Farrell, the recently named prefect of the newly established Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life; and Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSSR, of Indianapolis, who will be transferred to Newark, New Jersey after the new year. Given the criteria mentioned above, the selection of these men is curious. Chicago—a traditionally cardinalatial see with nearly 2.5 million Catholics—and a Vatican dicastery would indeed be considered among the “usual suspects” for cardinals, rather than “peripheral choices.” And Bishop Farrell and Archbishop Tobin have extensive experience in curial administration: Tobin spent six years as superior general of his religious order in Rome, and two years as secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Cupich also spent six years as the secretary for the Vatican nunciature in Washington, DC. Far from the ideal of “pastors with the smell of the sheep,” these prelates rather have the résumés of the very “careerists” that Pope Francis has spoken against.

Further, Pope Francis is known to have personal relationships with Cupich and Tobin. Archbishop Tobin met then-Cardinal Bergoglio in one of the Spanish-language groups at the 2005 Synod of Bishops, and the two have been friends since. Archbishop Cupich was the personal choice of Pope Francis to succeed Cardinal Francis George as archbishop of Chicago, even though his name was reportedly not one of the three submitted to the Holy Father in the traditional terna. And Cupich was also selected by the Holy Father as a participant in the two recent Synods on the Family. Though Cupich has a reputation in much of the media as a “Pope Francis bishop” with a “pastoral” bent, the reports of those who have been in his dioceses tells a different story, as an article from CWR editor Carl E. Olson relates:

The overall sense, expressed in varying degrees of detail, is that Cupich’s time in Spokane was quite disappointing and frustrating, especially for those looking for vibrant, clear, and accessible leadership. Those familiar with Cupich’s schedule and activities say that he was often out of the diocese for long periods of time, even more so than the amount of time Skylstad traveled while president of the USCCB. When Cupich was in the diocese, he was not readily available, rarely meeting with diocesan priests, especially not on an individual basis, although he apparently met often with certain, older Jesuit priests at Gonzaga.

Such facts make it all the more curious why these bishops were chosen rather than two others who were widely expected to join the Sacred College: Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, of Philadelphia. Both bishops match Pope Francis’s stated criteria in several respects. Both men would be personally representative of peripheral communities: Gomez, born in Mexico, would be the first Hispanic cardinal for the American church; and Chaput is the first Native American archbishop in American history and would be the first Native American cardinal. Both have spent their priesthood as pastors and bishops of dioceses. Neither prelate has had a religious or curial position in Rome. Both have reputations as truly pastoral bishops: for example, Chaput has met with parents of victims of sexual abuse by priests, while Gomez spent Christmas 2011 with inmates in a Los Angeles County prison. The difference, perhaps, is that both have reputations as “theological conservatives” or “culture warriors,” vocal in their support of Church teaching on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and critical of attempts to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion.

The conclusion that suggests itself is that Pope Francis’s choices in American cardinals reflect not a reach to the peripheries but a gathering of like-minded men. Now, certainly, it’s reasonable to include among the members of your advisory body people whom you know, like, and respect. Yet this can lead to several negative consequences.

First, including too many of those who share your sympathies can result in a “papal echo chamber” in which groupthink prevails and no alternative opinions or perspectives are able to pierce the bubble. Second, it can produce a “negative optic” (to borrow a political term) in which it appears that there is essentially a two-tiered College of Cardinals: the “in crowd” of the Pope’s friends who have his ear, and the “outsiders,” essentially token representatives from far-flung locales who may appear at consistories and synods but whose observations and experiences are by and large ignored. (One is reminded of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s comment that African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do,” a statement that he initially denied making and for which he later apologized.) Third, a new path for careerism could emerge where one simply becomes a sycophant to the Pope and attempts to curry his favor, or hitches oneself to a suitable papabile and hope one’s horse comes in first at the next conclave. None of these is a desirable fate for the College of Cardinals.

To be clear, the contention is not that Pope Francis intends any of this—a two-tiered college with tokens on the bottom and a sycophantic echo chamber on top—but rather that his actions could give the appearance that this is the situation—or worse, could produce this result de facto. While his stated goals are praiseworthy, his methods of achieving them could in fact work against his intentions.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Nicholas Senz 30 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children.