The logic and danger of Pope Francis’s approach to selecting cardinals

When we look at the cardinals Francis has bypassed and those he appointed in their place, it becomes clear that many of his selections share his view of the Church.

Cardinals wearing protective masks attend a consistory led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2020. (CNS photo/Fabio Frustaci, Reuters pool)

On Saturday, Pope Francis created thirteen cardinals in a consistory, nine of whom will be eligible to vote in a future conclave. Of these, two are officials of the Roman curia while just two others are in charge of sees that have had cardinals before. This is no novelty; in all of his seven consistories, Francis has often bypassed traditional cardinalate sees in favor of often-surprising peripheries of the universal Church. While such an approach is a welcome antidote to careerism in the Church, it does entail several dangers.

At this point, Pope Francis has nominated more than half of the men who will choose his successor: 57% out of 128. Many of them have come from sees or even countries that never had cardinals before or have not had cardinals in a long time.

There is no law stating that cardinal-electors must represent a traditional cardinalate see, nor is there any procedure for establishing a cardinalate see. Many European sees have consistently had cardinals since the Middle Ages, but as the Catholic Church has expanded outside of its traditional heartland of Europe, various popes—especially in the twentieth century (in terms of internationalizing the College of Cardinals, St. Paul VI has done the most)—gave the red hat to men leading large sees in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, after which their successors also received it, thus grounding an archdiocese’s status as a cardinalate see.

Currently, nearly four out of five Catholics live outside Europe. But the College of Cardinals is not intended to be a representative body like the United States House of Representatives; thus, Europe will likely be overrepresented in the College of Cardinals for a long time. As many media, both Catholic and secular, have noted, Pope Francis has created many non-European cardinals. This process, however, has been one of evolution rather than revolution: currently, 53 cardinal electors, still more than two-fifths of the total, are Europeans. That is only a moderately smaller proportion than in the papal conclaves of 2005 and 2013, when the Old Continent was represented by 58 and 60 voters, respectively.

Likewise, Italy is still by far the most-represented country. Presently, 22 Italians have the right to vote for the next pope, which is less than the 28 during the 2013 conclave, but still two more than after the conclave that elected Benedict XVI eight years earlier. The second country with the most cardinal electors, the United States, has seen only a slight decline in its share of the College of Cardinals: currently, nine Americans can vote in a conclave, two fewer than in both 2005 and 2013.

Arguably, a much more significant innovation than moderately expanding the College of Cardinals outside wealthy countries is the scrapping of automatically granting the red hat to cardinalate sees. In many cases Francis has appointed the first cardinals in the history of their countries. Chibly Langois and Gregorio Rosa Chávez, for example, are the first-ever cardinals from Haiti and El Salvador, respectively.

In countries already well-represented in the College of Cardinals, meanwhile, Francis has bypassed traditional cardinalate sees and instead given the red hat to smaller archdioceses. This has been the case in Italy, where he skipped making the Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, a cardinal despite the fact that the Patriarch of Venice has the right to wear red vestments before formally becoming a cardinal, while the patriarchate has produced no fewer than three twentieth-century popes (two of whom are canonized saints).

In the United States, Francis did not make Charles Chaput or José Horacio Gómez of the long-established cardinalate sees of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively, cardinals, but gave the red hat to Joseph W. Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark and previously of Indianapolis; neither of those American sees had been led by a cardinal before.

Likewise, Manila, the biggest Catholic see in Asia, currently does not have a cardinal (although it has been a cardinalate see for many years and was once led by Jaime Sin, the great spiritual godfather of the nonviolent revolution that ended the corrupt dictatorship of Fernando Marcos), but much smaller Capiz does.

Some of Francis’ choices have been truly historic. For me, the most astounding choice was that of Archbishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi of Tonga as a cardinal. I have an MA in international affairs, but upon learning of this nomination I had to double-check to make sure that Tonga is in Oceania. (While writing this article, I had to check what the adjective for someone from that nation is—it is Tongan; my incorrect intuition was Tongese.) Tonga is home to about 100,000, making it about half the size of my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and has 17,000 Catholics; there are many urban parishes worldwide with more Catholics than the entire Pacific archipelago nation.

Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, meanwhile, is the first Scandinavian cardinal since the Protestant Reformation.

There are some merits to eliminating automatic cardinalate sees. In recent weeks, the Church in the United States and the world has been shaken by the report concerning ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It is clear he was a career-minded opportunist whose ultimate goal was to become a cardinal. At an administrative level, McCarrick was a competent and successful Bishop of Metuchen and Archbishop of Newark. No one who knew McCarrick could deny that he was ambitious. He even resorted to lying to St. John Paul II and many other good people about allegations that he was a homosexual and a predator.

McCarrick became a cardinal at the first consistory (incidentally, the same one at which Jorge Mario Bergoglio was given the red hat) following his appointment as Archbishop of Washington. If in 2001 the pope had not automatically granted the red hat to the archbishop of a cardinalate see, perhaps McCarrick’s elevation to the College of Cardinals could have been avoided. Pope Francis’ approach seems to focus more on the personal and pastoral qualities of a potential cardinal rather than on the mere fact that he leads a cardinalate see.

Indeed, some of Francis’ surprising cardinals are definitely inspiring; the impression they leave is one in stark contrast to McCarrick. For example, before Francis’ pontificate, very few had heard of the office of papal almoner, even though its history stretched back to the Middle Ages. The current papal almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, has inspired many people around the world with his unwavering devotion to the poor in Rome and in conflict zones. Francis’ giving the red hat to Krajewski reminds us as Catholics that a preferential option for the poor is one of the Church’s main missions.

There are, however, two dangers of eliminating cardinalate sees. First, the cardinals are the pope’s closest collaborators. Although there is no formal requirement that a new pope is a cardinal elector (as life expectancy increases and the fact that the two most recent popes were elected at the ages of seventy-six and seventy-eight, respectively, yet had longer pontificates than most had predicted, a cardinal older than eighty might be elected pope someday), it is widely expected that the next pope will be among the men congregated in the Sistine Chapel during a conclave.

One can reasonably expect, therefore, that a cardinal should have significant experience running a large see or dicastery. With all respect to the Tongan people, would a shepherd to 17,000 Catholics know how to govern the Church? The first Salvadoran cardinal, meanwhile, is only the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. Would not the Archbishop of San Salvador be a more logical choice?

Meanwhile, the most recent batch of cardinals includes Mauro Gambetti, the former General Custos of the Sacred Convent of St. Francis of Assisi. Without a doubt, having overseen a world-famous shrine like that of Assisi for seven years is a major responsibility, but is it the same as being in charge of a diocese?

It is clear that such nominations were nods to Francis’ heroes. Cardinal Chávez was a close collaborator of St. Oscar Romero, whom Francis has beatified, canonized, and repeatedly lauded. Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ debt to the Beggar of Assisi needs no explanation. Such cardinalate nominations are not a novelty; St. John Paul II, for instance, made some of his favorite then-living theologians cardinals: Hans Urs von Balthasar (who died before the consistory), Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Avery Dulles. However, these men became cardinals well past eighty, so these were purely honorific titles.

It is a fair bet that few voting cardinals know much about Tonga or the activities of an auxiliary bishop in Central America. Thus, whereas Francis’ selection of cardinals is likely in part motivated by a desire for a decentralization of the Church, the surplus of unfamiliar faces at the next conclave paradoxically increases the likelihood of the election of a Roman curia cardinal as the next pope, as most cardinals will likely vote for someone they know.

The scrapping of automatic cardinalate sees also reduces a process of checks and balances in the Catholic Church. Due to his selective and never-automatic choices of cardinals, it has been easier for Francis to select men (and, consequently, his successor) with similar views. There have been some exceptions, such as Gerhard Ludwig Müller, whom Francis made a cardinal (but later dismissed as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and who has been in favor of clarifying the confusion regarding Amoris laetitia.

When we look at the cardinals Francis has bypassed and those he appointed in their place, it becomes clear that many of his selections share his view of the Church. A central theme of the pontificate of Francis, the son of an Italian railway worker who fled Mussolini’s rule for Argentina, has been support for migrants and political refugees. Many of Francis’ cardinals tend to large immigrant flocks: in Cardinal Arborelius’ Sweden, the Church consists mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, while in Brunei, whose Apostolic Vicar Cornelius Sim was recently made a cardinal, most Catholics are migrants (Sim himself is of Chinese and Malay origin).

More controversially, many of Francis’ cardinals share his approach to homosexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes that homosexual inclinations themselves are not sinful (but are “objectively disordered”), but homosexual acts are (CCC 2357-59). Francis has not disputed this, but some of his words – such as his recent statement on same-sex unions – have created disastrous confusion. In the United States, Francis bypassed Chaput and Gómez, both strong conservatives, whereas Tobin has openly supported the Jesuit James Martin’s controversial book on the Church and homosexuality. An identical process can be observed in Italy: Venice’s Moraglia is strongly conservative, as is Cesare Nosiglia of Turin (another traditional cardinalate see Francis has bypassed), who canceled a retreat for cohabitating homosexuals in his diocese, whereas the pope did give the red hat to Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, who has written the preface to the Italian edition of Martin’s book.

Despite his conservative reputation, Benedict XVI appointed two of the biggest advocates of changing the Church’s “tone” on homosexuality, Luis Antonio Tagle and Reinhard Marx, as cardinals. Benedict must have known about their different views of the Church, not in the least because the former is a member of the “Bologna School” of Vatican II historians with whom Benedict disagrees, while the latter is not only a fellow German but even runs the same Archdiocese he once did.

The disgraceful ecclesiastical rise and plummet of Theodore McCarrick is evidence that Pope Francis is right about the dangers of careerism and clericalism. Recognizing a pastor as a cardinal for his ministry, not the simple fact that he is in charge of a traditional cardinalate see, is a potentially effective remedy. However, the bypassing of cardinalate sees has led to some odd choices of cardinals with questionable qualifications, and it can tempt any pope into rigging the results of the next conclave.

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About Filip Mazurczak 82 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others. He teaches at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow.


  1. We read: “When we look at the cardinals Francis has bypassed and those he appointed in their place, it becomes clear that many of his selections share his view of the Church.”

    On the other hand, if Pope Francis is stacking the deck, this might backfire. For those from the periphery, to not be in step with the Western apostasy might figure well into conclave voting, and likewise the availability now of two relevant publications, both entitled THE NEXT POPE (George Weigel on the job description, and Edward Pentin on the 19 most likely papabili).

    One can only hope that all of the conclave cardinals, especially the more recent, will have received and will seriously prepare in advance for the conclave (unlike the limited time afforded in the past). A good pope will need a good right-hand man to run the store, and perhaps many of those who have spent a lifetime positioning themselves for this role (if not for the papacy) will end up on the street where they belong, along with many of the present so-called “brain trust.”

    As the saying goes: “those who enter the conclave as a pope leave as a cardinal.” Especially if the next candidates are both capable and open to reading English (an useful international language!) publications and constructive critiques.

  2. If only the so called conservatives were as shrewd as Pope Francis we would never have had a St. Gallen Mafia or a Pope Francis in the first place.

  3. Proof that Francis is part of the problem, and not the solution, is his choice of Cardinals and Bishops. Gregory is the Deep Church personified, as Crisis Magazine noted in a recent article. Either the Pope is grossly negligent or he is deliberately empowering corrupt and malevolent men simply because they share his ideology. Either way, his judgment is questionable and casts his ability to continue leading our Church into doubt.

      • Gregory will have more, not less, “free rein” than McCarrick did because Bergoglio knows everything about him that Woytla didn’t know about McCarrick. Gregory will be as catastrophic for the American Church as Bergoglio is for the Universal Church. “Birds of a feather clock together” or, in French, “La cage aux folles”.

  4. Very interesting to a “common lay person” to read all this judgement and rash backbiting of other Catholics. When in the simple of statements, yet fact.. The greatest of virtue is, to never, ever say anything bad about another..
    To that, abortion is, and has been for years, the simple only directive, issue of Catholic news, evils. Yet denial Chasity, refrain from sex, to respect women, the sanctity of marriage, is not recognized, nor promoted.
    To tell children premarital sex is a grave mortal sin, that is the path to Hell, is taboo.
    To go off in patriotic loathic march, to slaughter the poor, incite genocide is a Mortal sin.. To stand against war, murder, genocide, as President Biden is moving toward, reveals a True Catholic in action..
    Recognition of unjust wars, Unbridled Capitalism, as the current Pope Francis has, is true Catholic mind in action. To put, education as the top priority of our nations government.
    That is what we need in Catholic leadership!

    • Biden supports unrestricted abortion rights, so how is he “standing against murder” when the most vulnerable people are not safe and their basic right to life is not protected? How is destroying unborn life even remotely Catholic?

      • Morality, Church teachings should prevent people from engaging actions that create the potential for a child.
        Infanticide, or Abortion has existed in all of history, as a solution to people having sex, with no respect or concern to, God invented marriage, the creation of a child, human.
        Regardless if abortion is legal, or illegal is not going to change the facts of humans creating a child and it being aborted, legally, or illegally.
        Very little is going to improve in the USA to the fact of abortion is illegal, or legal.
        But, if the US government stops its Unjust Wars, Genocide on Yemen alone, Millions of children, and women, and mne, could have been saved, instantly.
        If the Unjust war on Iraq was ended, another great atrocity and crime against humanity would end… Peace is the answer, as abstinence, and discipline.
        Building bridges, not walls, the Biden way, the Catholic way.

    • On what planet does the thoroughly economic illiterate Pope Francis, who, depending on his glib impulsive egomaniacal mood, and oblivious to rational contradictions, who consistently alternates from global elitist, a supporter of Marxist tyrannies, a supporter of crony capitalism and mindless critic of efficient capitalist forms that are most effective in protecting the environment and feeding the poor, demonstrate any sane leadership or reveal any understanding of what constitutes what would be benevolent to humanity or what would reflect authentic service to God and His Church?
      Elitism (aka the sin of pride) is what is wrong with world affairs, and profoundly foolish “Catholics” were instrumental in voting out the most anti-elitist holder of elective office in American history, that is, world history, despite his mock-prideful style, and replaced him with an anti-Catholic bigot claiming to be Catholic, and seeking institutional elitism.
      And why would the government indoctrination of children by the educational establishment, inevitably hostile to the Christian values you claim to value in your comments, be a “top priority” in any other sense other than to oppose it?

  5. The Pontiff Francis orchestrated and presided over idolatry in Rome in 2019.

    The Pontiff Francis promotes Bishops and priests who promote sodomy and abandon chastity.

    The Pontiff Francis defends sex predators like “Rev.” Julio Grassi of Argentina (now in jail in a 15 year sentence after Archbishop Bergoglio spent $ millions of Church funds defending him), and liberates convicted sex predators “Rev.” Mauro Inzoli (who raped boys in the confessional).

    The Pontiff Francis promotes convicted, subversive sex coverup Cardinals like “His Eminence” Daneels of Belgium, who was reactivated and restored to power by Pontiff Francis in 2013, three short years after retiring in disgrace when newspapers in Belgium published recordings of Daneels covering up for Bishop Roger Vangelhuwe, the “Belgian McCarrick,” a homosexual predator who groomed and raped his own little nephew. Pontiff Francis put sex predator coverup artist Daneels in power on “The Synod on the Family.”

    The Pontiff Francis promotes seminarian sex predator Bishops like his long-time friend Zanchetta of Argentina, now under civil investigation for homosexual sex predation of seminarians.

    The Pontiff Francis liberated his sex predator friend McCarrick, who like Daneels, bragged about helping to get Bergoglio elected Pontiff (helping twice in fact, first in Conclave 2005 when they failed, and then in 2013 when they succeeded).

    St. Paul warned that sexual offenses go hand-in-hand with idolatry.

    These men named above have “the mind of McCarrick.” They are betrayers of Our Lord Jesus. They are enemies of The Good Shepherd and his Church.

  6. If Cardinals are supposed to be advisors to the Pope then it makes sense to have Cardinals from as many parts of the world as possible (regardless of diocese/country size) in order to have a true sense of the state/needs of the Church.

    What I don’t like is the apparent deck stacking.

    At the same time, many of our bishops and Cardinals are a slippery (maybe slimy) lot who change their views at the drop of a hat. How many so called conservative bishops/Cardinals under JP2 and Benedict are either now big Francis supporters or utterly silent on the state of the Church. Maybe there are secret conservatives among Francis’ picks. There were certainly secret liberals among the picks of JP2 and Benedict. In short, most of these guys are politicians first and shepherds second (maybe third).

  7. The next pope: No one human being knows who it will be, but the Holy Spirit knows, and he knows all the future popes the Church will have until the end of the world. We do our part and pray, cardinals will choose in their own way, but the Holy Spirit will always be the protagonist who will choose all the popes.

    When Saint John Bosco was at St Peter’s Basilica one day in 1866 because Pope Pius IX wanted to hear from him the great graces God was bestowing upon him, he told those around him that in the particular niche he pointed to, one day there would be his statue. And in point of fact it is there now, exactly where Don Bosco indicated, i.e. between the statue of St John Baptist de la Salle and St Frances Xavier Cabrini.

    There and then he turned round and saw near him a nine-year-old boy. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Don Bosco told that boy that one day he would become Pope. In point of fact that boy became Pope Pius XI.

    Our past, present and future are all present before God and they have been present before him from ever and will remain present before him forever.

    • Praise God; With all the comments; all have forgotten that The Holy Spirit is
      in charge of these final choices. Many times we do not know the reason for the particular individuals or journey. Whay suffering will we endure; what strength we will gain and true purpose. God knows; we pray for God’s Will always.

      In His Divine Will; we pray

  8. The paragraph “At this point, Pope Francis has nominated more than half of the men who will choose his successor: 57 out of 128. Many of them have come from sees or even countries that never had cardinals before or have not had cardinals in a long time.” is interesting, if not accurate.

    57 is not more than half of 128!

    The real numbers are 55 elevated prior to Pope Francis with Pope Francis adding 73 more. (Yes, more than half)

  9. 50% of 128 is 64 NOT 57. If you are unable to calculate a simple math problem why should we be concerned about any conclusion to which you come.

    • The stakes of preserving doctrinal orthodoxy and preserving the Church’s moral witness to a world increasing its rate of moral collapse, including its rate of mass murder of the innocent, are more important that a simple slip with a math calculation.

  10. Well, it certainly seems he is stacking the court. I’m not surprised. That’s his business, not mine.
    Sadly, I trust F1 not an inch. That’s my business, not his.

  11. PF called Joe Biden to congratulate him. He did not call Donald Trump. Fact is, No politician has done more for the Church , for life and for faith than Trump. Yet, Francis disdains him and applauds an outright abortionist who opposes religious freedom and supports abortion til the end of the ninth month. PF clearly picks cardinals for political reasons over faith. IN the face of horrific gay sexual abuse, he makes sure only pro gay bishops get a biretta. I have never known a pope who causes such division, and cold heartedness towards the thousands of sexually abused victims… are they not in the peripheries. THe Church is collapsing due to the gay network in the church, the sad numbers are there…. and this Pope clearly supports this network. Here in Canada, we have a wonderful brillian orthodox and loving archbishop of MOntreal.. a very important and historical see.. have had a cardinal for decades. He got no votes, for sure. He is not pro gay at all. There is something very wrong with this Pope.It is very clear in his choice of cardinals. How is the cardinal of Tonga going to have the universal mind of the Church? .. bit of a joke.

  12. Back in the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI when the likes found here above of the disloyal and disrespectful bashers of the Pope, they would be called Cafeteria Catholics or misguided ideology-based Catholics! I believe today they should be named likewise and be deeply prayed for for their enlightenment and conversation!

  13. Danger is the key notion in Filip Mazurczak’s “The logic and danger of Pope Francis’s [sic] approach to selecting cardinals”. It loudly rings in the title, and rings thrice throughout in the article, as Mazurczak discusses Pope Francis’ choice of new cardinals, some “with questionable qualifications.” And so, the Pope is a dangerous man. Another key notion rings twice: controversy, when Mazurczak touches on the issue of homosexuality. “More controversially”, many of Pope Francis’ cardinals share his opinion on this sexual inclination. The unkindest cut comes at the end, and it is implicit: the Pope is a political thug. Bypassing cardinalate sees, and making “odd choices”, he sets an example on how to rig a conclave. I wager that how to do so has been known for centuries. Historically, the Church has been a mother institution and model on political ways and means, including chicanery.

    No doubt about it: the Catholic World Report insists on remaining a dogged sounding board of opposition to Pope Francis I. For the good of Holy Mother the Church, and of humanity, may he remain pope for many years and continue to frustrate his opponents.

  14. In George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, he tells the story of how the communist authorities kept interfering with the appointment of a new bishop in Kraków. They kept rejecting all the serious proposals apart from Wojtyła. Finally, after round after round of proposed candidates were rejected, the Church caved in and accepted Wojtyła as the only candidate that the communists would also accept. The communists’ plan was to divide and destroy the Catholic Church by trying to get a young – and in their opinion – modernist Bishop of Kraków, who (they thought) would clash with the (in their minds conservative) Cardinal Primate of Poland, Stefan Wyszyński. They figured that the Polish Church would be divided between modernists who wanted to change everything, and Stefan Wyszyński supporters, who represented the old-style ‘prince of the Church.’ With the Church divided, it would soon fall apart as a counterweight and force for resistance to communism in Poland. How wrong they were. Wojtyła immediately submitted himself to the authority of the Cardinal Primate on learning of his appointment as Bishop of Kraków, and for his part, Wyszyński urged Wojtyła to accept his election as Pontiff.

    All this speculation – based entirely on an American worldview conditioned by presidents ‘stacking the court’ as one commenter called Francis’s actions – is as fruitless as the machinations of the communists in maneuvering to get Karol Wojtyła in place as Bishop of Kraków. When the Enemy thinks he’s got things all under control, God pulls the rug out from under him.

    A professor in a seminary in Canada asks his students these three questions about difficult situations; they are pertinent to the hand-wringing going on here:
    1. Does God know about this situation?
    2. Could God change it if he willed to do so?
    3. Is the situation nevertheless ongoing?
    If you answer ‘yes’ to all those questions, the only possible conclusion is that God has a purpose in the matter. Pray and leave it to God.

  15. Pope Francis needs to concentrate on how he can help making Christ’s church holy again and stop worrying about fake news like ‘climate change,’ the One World Order that he supports, and other issues that he should leave to the politicians. He also needs to be thinking more of ‘his soul’ since he soon will have to give an account of his Papacy to the Mighty Judge Himself !

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