• John Thavis

Pope’s cardinal choices signal geographic shift, but no earthquake

Pope Francis’ first batch of cardinal appointments registered a geographical shift toward Latin America, Africa and Asia, but without bringing major changes to the College of Cardinals in its size or make-up.

Announced by the pope today in Rome, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three over-80 cardinals were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla. No U.S. cardinals were named.

Pope Francis had the freedom to break with tradition when it came to naming cardinals. As pope, he could have raised the number of voting age-cardinals substantially, allowing for a more immediate introduction of geographical balance in a College dominated by Europeans.

He could have rewritten the rules so that the red hat was not obligatory for top Roman Curia officials. He could have introduced lay cardinals. He could have taken this opportunity to give the College a wider role in church affairs.

The fact that he chose not to make such radical changes reflects several factors, I think. First, Francis probably did not want to be seen as revamping the very institution that elected him only 10 months ago. If deeper changes are needed, they can easily come later in his pontificate.

Second, he may be convinced that a shift toward more pastoral leaders and fewer bureaucrats in the College of Cardinals is something that can be accomplished gradually. Over the next five years, he will have an opportunity to name at least 40 additional cardinals.

Third, the College of Cardinals may not be all that crucial to the reforms Pope Francis has in mind for the Vatican and the church at large. At present, a cardinal’s most important task is voting in a conclave. Although known as the church’s “Senate,” the cardinals really aren’t convened very often in Rome, and there is no indication Pope Francis plans to change that.

Being a cardinal does not by definition bring greater influence in most central church decisions. Traditionally, cardinals have dominated membership in Roman Curia agencies, but it remains to be seen if that will continue under Francis.

A look at today’s appointments:

— Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia. That’s the shift I spoke about above.

Because the pope continued his predecessors’ custom of handing out red hats to leading Vatican administrators, four of the 16 voting-age cardinals are Roman Curia officials. That helped keep the College’s geographical balance firmly in the Old World: six of the 16 come from Europe (four of them from Italy, which retains the highest number of cardinal electors.)

As expected, among the Vatican cardinals is the new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Unexpected was the pope’s selection of Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; that may well be a sign that the pope foresees a much more important role for the synod in the months and years to come.

— The pope stretched the numerical limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, but only by a few months. After the consistory to formally create the cardinals is held in February, there will be 122 cardinals under age 80, but that number goes down to 120 by the end of May. (Of course, the presumption is that no conclave will be held before then.)

— The Vatican said the pope’s choice of cardinals for Burkina Faso and Haiti reflected his concern for people struck by poverty. He also chose two prelates from places that do not traditionally have a cardinal, Perugia in Italy and Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This practice, too, if continued in future appointments, could help redistribute the cardinal population around the world.

— Many Catholics will note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, once again, missing from the list of new cardinals. No doubt the thinking was that more cardinals from the Third World means fewer from Europe. But Archbishop Martin, more than other residential archbishops, has shown tremendous courage and honesty in addressing the sex abuse scandal, and his appointment would have sent an important signal.

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