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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