When appointing new cardinals, will Francis follow tradition or continue to surprise?

by Thomas Reese

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The creation of new cardinals in February may well determine whether the papacy of Pope Francis is a flash in the pan or a turning point in the history of the church. It is the College of Cardinals that will determine whether his legacy is lasting when they choose his successor after he dies or retires.

If they choose a new pope committed to the reforms begun by Francis, all will be well. If not, church leaders, especially the Roman Curia, could try to return to business a usual.

This has happened before. Pope John XXIII was a reforming pope who called the Second Vatican Council, but he was not strategic when it came to the appointment of cardinals. He appointed many people who were not totally on board with the council. People joked that he made his enemies cardinals, especially those in the Curia. He even broke with tradition by making archbishops of all of the cardinals working in the Curia.

Judging by the appointments he made last year, Pope Francis is not making this mistake. In order to understand the radical nature of his 2014 appointments, one must remember the written and unwritten rules governing the appointment of cardinals.

According to canon law, the pope has total freedom to appoint whomever he wants, although since 1971 he is not supposed to go over 120 cardinals under 80 years of age. In 2003, Pope John Paul II waived that rule and set a new record of 135 cardinals under 80.

Respect for tradition can also restrain the pope's choices. Here are three unwritten rules that have guided the creation of cardinals:

Unwritten Rule 1: A see with a retired cardinal under 80 years of age will not have its current archbishop made a cardinal.

Francis has not broken this rule, although John Paul did, for example, in Santiago in 1985. The pope would have to break the rule to make the archbishop of Los Angeles, Chicago, or Philadelphia a cardinal.

He could bend the rule for Philadelphia since Cardinal Justin Rigali will turn 80 on April 19. Given Archbishop Charles Chaput's less than enthusiastic embrace of the Francis papacy, that would be a surprise.

Breaking the rule for Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, on the other hand, would be an extraordinary endorsement of him as leader of the American church.

The probability is that neither Chaput nor Cupich will be made cardinals. The U.S. currently has 11 cardinal electors (cardinals under 80 years of age), which is typical.

Unwritten Rule 2: There are certain sees that are considered "cardinalatial sees," because they have traditionally had their archbishops made cardinals.

Pope Francis ignored this rule in 2014 when he gave red hats to Les Cayes and Cotabato, which had never had cardinals, and to Perugia, which had not had one since the 19th century. In the meantime, he ignored sees that traditionally had cardinals such as Venice, Turin, Lisbon, and Toledo. Skipping over Venice and Turin for Perugia was quite remarkable. It gave heartburn to Italian traditionalists.

If he reigns long enough, Francis will get his own men into the cardinalatial sees and then not have to ignore this unwritten rule. In the meantime, will he surprise us again like he did last year or will he elevate the current occupants of the traditional cardinalatial sees?

There are lots of cardinalatial sees out there besides the four mentioned above. Last year I printed a list of 17 diocesan archbishops who were possible candidates plus another 29 who were possible but not probable. Most of these are still available.  

If Francis continues to pick the man rather than the diocese, all bets are off. In the U.S., that might mean Atlanta, Ga., New Orleans, La., or Miami, Fla. Around the world, it could be anywhere.

Unwritten Rule 3: About 27 percent of the College of Cardinals is composed of members of the Vatican Curia.

As late as 1939, almost half the cardinals were members of the curia. Pope Pius XII reduced this percentage to 24 percent. John XXIII brought it back up to 37 percent, but Pope Paul VI brought it down to 27 percent where John Paul II kept it. Pope Benedict XVI, however, increased the Curial cardinals to 35 percent of the college.

I have argued elsewhere that members of the Curia should not be made cardinals or bishops, but Francis believes otherwise. He told Elisabetta Piqué in Argentine daily newspaper La Nación, "The head of a dicastery like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the liturgical dicastery or the new dicastery encompassing laity and family as well as justice and peace will always be a cardinal." 

On the other hand, I doubt Francis wants to hand out red hats as status symbols for other Curial officials. This would contradict everything he has been preaching about clericalism and careerism in the Curia.

At his first consistory in 2014, Francis appointed four Curial cardinals, which made for a total of 34 percent of the college. This year's consistory will give Francis the opportunity to return to the Curial percentage to the range followed by Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. He could do that by simply not appointing any new Curial cardinals at the next consistory.

Since all of the prefects of the Vatican congregations are currently cardinals, Pope Francis does not have to elevate any of them. Other offices are currently under review as part of the pope's effort to reform the Curia. Appointing new cardinals before the reform is complete would not make sense.

The Curial official who is most likely to get a red hat is Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, who in November took Cardinal Raymond Burke's position as prefect the Apostolic Signatura. The Signatura has been headed by a cardinal since it was established as the supreme tribunal in 1908. But since the entire Vatican judicial system is under review as part of the reform of the Curia, this appointment could also be put off until the reform is completed.

Unwritten Rule 4: Europeans (including Italians) make up about half the College of Cardinals; Latin America has 16 to 20 percent; Asia, Africa, and the U.S. each get about 10 percent; the Italian contingent has been between 17 and 24 percent of the college.

The Italian make up of the college has been on a rollercoaster during recent papacies. In 1939, they made up 57 percent of the college, but were brought down to 33 percent by Pius XII. They inched up to 35 percent under John XXIII, but were brought down to 24 percent by Paul VI. John Paul II continued to reduce the Italian percentage to 17, but Pope Benedict brought them back to 24 percent.

Will Pope Francis follow the example of Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul II and reduce the percentage of Italians in the College of Cardinals? Will he take red hats from Europe and distribute them in the global south?

At the 2005 conclave, Latin Americans made up 16 percent of the college. Surprisingly, at his first consistory, Pope Francis actually reduced that by one percentage point and kept the Italians at 24 percent. Will he continue the geographical status quo or change the balance in the College of Cardinals?

It is hard to radically change the College of Cardinals when there are only 10 vacancies. Pope Francis could up the number to 12 if he anticipated the cardinals reaching 80 in March and April, but that is still only 10 percent of the college. But added to the 16 appointed last year, Pope Francis will be taking the steps to ensure the permanency of his legacy if he picks the right people as cardinal electors.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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