ANALYSIS: What's the significance of Benedict's picks?

New York

Whenever a pope names new members to the church’s most exclusive club, he inevitably makes a statement – about his own priorities, about where the church is going, and ultimately about the sort of men in line to take over when he’s gone.

So, what statements did Pope Benedict XVI make this morning by naming 23 new cardinals, including 18 under the age of 80 and hence eligible to vote for the next pope?

At least seven come to mind:

•tHe recognized the shifting center of the Catholic population in the United States from the East Coast to the Southwest;
•tHe signaled the importance of the American church by giving the country two new cardinals, although the U.S. is already over-represented in the College of Cardinals relative to its Catholic population;
•tHe did not redistribute cardinals to the global South, where two-thirds of Catholics now live, but instead slightly bolstered the over-representation of Europeans;
•tHe kept the percentage of Vatican officials among electors roughly the same at 25 percent;
•tHe indicated his sympathy for Iraq by naming the Chaldean patriarch a cardinal;
•tHe confirmed his concern for the intellectual life of the church by giving honorary red hats to two former rectors of flagship pontifical universities in Rome;
•tHe introduced at least two new candidates to become the first pope from the global South: Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, and John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya.

Benedict XVI named Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Glaveston-Houston to the College of Cardinals rather than the man widely presumed to be next in line among the Americans, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. That choice undoubtedly reflects the shifting demographics of American Catholicism, away from its traditional centers on the East Coast and towards the Southwest. According to estimates from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, almost 40 percent of Catholics in the United States today are Hispanic, overwhelmingly concentrated in the “Sun Belt” states of the South and Southwest.

That, however, is not the only level of significance to the selection. DiNardo worked in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops from 1984 to 1990, where he served under Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, at the time the congregation’s secretary. Rigali is widely seen as the preeminent “kingmaker” among American prelates; when he was recently appointed as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, one of his brother American cardinals said on background that the move “rendered official what has been unofficial,” meaning that Rigali is the American heavyweight best positioned to influence bishops’ appointments in the United States. The choice of DiNardo will likely bolster that impression.

Benedict’s decision to name two new American cardinals can also be read as a further sign of the importance he attaches to the church here, given that the United States will now have 17 cardinals, including 13 electors, the second-largest number in both categories after the Italians. The United States has more cardinals than Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines combined, the other three largest Catholic countries on earth, despite the fact that those three nations contain 315 million Catholics to the roughly 70 million in the United States.

Benedict XVI also made a statement, though perhaps not an intentional one, by including 11 Europeans among the 18 new cardinal-electors. Prior to the nominations, 52 of the 104 cardinal-electors had been Europeans, exactly 50 percent. Now, 63 of 122 cardinal-electors are Europeans, raising their share of the voting total to 52 percent.

Benedict named two new African cardinals, one Indian, and two Latin Americans. Overall, after Nov. 24, 62 of the 103 cardinal-electors will be European, 15 North Americans (including 13 from the United States), 20 will be Latin Americans, 9 Africans, 13 Asians, and 2 from Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). The Latin American number is perhaps most striking; despite the fact that roughly half the Catholic population of the world lives in Latin America, just 16 percent of the church’s cardinal-electors will come from the continent.

Of the 11 new European cardinals, five are Italian, four of whom work in the Vatican. All told, 6 of the 18 new cardinals are Vatican officials, increasing by one percentage point the overall share of the College of Cardinals composed of Vatican personnel, from 25 to 26.2 percent. However, that bump is temporary, because the day before the Nov. 24 consistory Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Secretary of State, will turn 80 and thus no longer be eligible to vote for the next pope.

One key question church-watchers always ask when a consistory is announced is whether any of the new porporati, or “purpled ones,” as the Italians say, also stand out as papabili, or candidates to be the next pope.

While none stands out as an obvious front-runner, at least two new cardinals from the global South could draw attention when the time comes: Gracias, 62, of Mumbai, India; and Njue, 63, of Nairobi.

Gracias has won high marks in India for astutely navigating between avant garde elements in the local church pressing for greater inculturation and a more positive theological approach to non-Christian religions, and traditionalists in Rome made uncomfortable by both propositions. Gracias was the elected president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India prior to his appointment to Mumbai, reflecting the confidence of his brother bishops.

Njue, meanwhile, has a reputation as a voice of conscience. He denounced the Kenyan government’s handling of the investigation that followed the death of American missionary Fr. John Kaiser in 2000, which was officially ruled a suicide, but which Njue and other Catholic leaders have suggested may have been an assassination in which elements of the government may have been involved. In 2002, Njue received death threats for leading a campaign against political corruption. Njue was elected by his fellow bishops in Kenya to three terms as chair of the national bishops’ conference. Like Gracias, Njue knows his way around Rome, having studied at the Lateran University.

Finally, Benedict XVI also showed his appreciation for loyalty today by at long last naming Archbishop John Foley to the College of Cardinals. Foley served as the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications since 1984 until he resigned in June, and during those 23 years, Foley watched eight consistories in which 214 other men became cardinals. Each time he endured speculation about why he had not been inducted into the college with good humor and without complaint. One of the most universally popular figures in the Vatican, it's not difficult to anticipate that his line of well-wishers during the receptions following the Nov. 24 consistory should be especially long.

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