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  • John Thavis

New cardinals, and new opportunities for change

Pope Francis is going to name his first batch of cardinals in a few months, a move seen as part of the slow and methodical process of reshaping the church’s hierarchy more or less in the new pope’s image.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said today that the pope will preside over a consistory to create the cardinals on Feb. 22. The consistory is expected to be preceded by a separate meeting of the College of Cardinals, presumably to discuss impending changes in the Vatican bureaucracy.

By February, there will be at least 14 “openings” for cardinals under the age of 80, who can vote in a conclave.

It’s always impressed me how quickly a pope can put his mark on the College of Cardinals and influence the eventual election of his successor. There are numerical reasons for this: the voting age cardinals are a small group, limited to 120 members, and at present they have an average age of 72.

If Pope Francis remains in office as long as Pope Benedict did – eight years – that means he will have named well over half the 120 voting cardinals in the next conclave.

But a pope doesn’t have to wait eight years to reshape the College of Cardinals, and I’m hoping Francis will introduce the kind of deep reforms here that he has promised elsewhere in the church’s life.

The College of Cardinals is a human institution, not a divinely mandated clerical Senate, and throughout its approximately 1,000-year history it has been remodeled and reformed many times. The title of “cardinal” is an honorific, not a sacramental order, and the rules about who could be named a cardinal have changed many times.

“Lay” cardinals existed for centuries, although strictly speaking they were men who were in minor orders but without having been ordained as deacons, priests or bishops. The current code of canon law says all cardinals must be bishops, but exceptions have been made to that rule in recent years (the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, for example.)

There’s been talk recently about naming a woman cardinal. It’s not a new idea, actually. I remember that during the 1994 Synod of Bishops, an African bishop said naming a woman cardinal would be a prophetic gesture that demonstrates the importance of women in the life of the church. It didn’t take long for the Roman Curia and others to squash the idea.

But creating lay, and women, cardinals is only one of the possibilities open to Pope Francis:

— He could, and probably should, substantially increase the number of cardinals. There is really no other easy way to break the dominance of the Roman Curia cardinals (currently they represent more than one-third of voting-age members) and European cardinals (who today are more than half the voting-age members.) In the age of global Catholicism, there’s no good reason why Latin America, the most populous Catholic region in the world, should have only 15 cardinals voting in a conclave, while Europe has 57.

— The pope can lower “red hat” expectations in many European archdioceses and, in particular, in Roman Curia offices. As part of his restructuring of the Vatican’s bureaucracy, he can rewrite the rules so that most Vatican departments no longer need to be headed by a cardinal. It’s a prestige thing in Rome, and unnecessary.

— Pope Francis may also want to give the College of Cardinals some real responsibility other than electing a pope. Up to now, occasional meetings of the cardinals have produced very little creative thinking or input. That could change, especially with new and younger membership.

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