(RNS) Any day now, Pope Francis is expected to make his first appointments to the College of Cardinals, the select group of about 120 scarlet-clad churchmen whose main duty is to advise the pope while he reigns – and gather in the Sistine Chapel when he dies or resigns to name his successor.
That makes the nominations especially critical, and they will be another indicator of what direction Francis wants to push the church’s leadership. As the Rev. Thomas Reese of National Catholic Reporter put it in his analysis of the importance of the choices: “People in red hats tend to stand out in a crowd.”
The Vatican has announced that Francis will officially “create” the new cardinals (that is the technical church term for the papal appointments) on Feb. 22, and the list of names is usually released weeks in advance.
Canon law provides a ceiling of 120 eligible electors among the cardinals; those who turn 80 no longer have the right to vote in a conclave. As of Feb. 1, there will be 106 cardinals under 80, giving Francis 14 vacancies to fill, though he can use his papal prerogative and exceed that limit. The late John Paul II pushed the number of cardinal-electors to 135 at one point.
John Paul also significantly “internationalized” the college and reduced the traditional, often conservative influence of the Roman Curia – the papal bureaucracy – and the Italian bloc.
But Pope Benedict XVI, whose stunning retirement last February amid turmoil in the Vatican paved the way for the election of Francis, boosted the curial contingent from about one-quarter of the electors to more than one-third.
During Benedict’s eight-year tenure, the Italians also rebounded from just over 16 percent of the electors at John Paul’s death in 2005 to nearly 24 percent of the college today – though Italy claims just 4 percent of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. All told, Benedict created 65 of the total number of cardinals under 80, nearly two-thirds of the current electors.
There was some discussion in recent months about whether Francis would shock the cardinal-creating system – which has existed more or less in its current format since the 12th century – to include a woman rather than just bishops, who can only be men. But the pope himself ruled that out.
Still, many other questions surround Francis’ possible picks:
- Will this Argentine pope – the first from Latin America – address the geographic imbalance by naming more cardinals from his own continent? Latin America has just 13 percent of the eligible cardinals despite being home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics. “If Italy is the giant in the room, Latin America is Cinderella,” Reese said.
- Will he reduce the outsized representation of cardinals from the scandal-plagued Curia, and from Italy, whose delegation of electors has claimed a kingmaker’s role in papal elections?
- Will he add to the 11 cardinal-electors from the U.S.?
- Will he bolster the number of cardinals from Africa and Asia? That’s where the flock is also growing, but with little high-level representation. For example, the Philippines is home to about 80 million Catholics, but has just one cardinal, while the U.S. has 11 cardinals for about 65 million Catholics. South Korea is booming but has no voting-age cardinals.
“He could, and probably should, substantially increase the number of cardinals,” veteran Vatican-watcher John Thavis wrote on his blog. “There is really no other easy way to break the dominance of the Roman Curia cardinals … 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,” Thavis said.
There’s a good chance that Francis will not increase the number of American cardinals. Typically a pope names cardinals who are archbishops from major dioceses. The two U.S. archdioceses that would be next in line are Los Angeles, headed by Archbishop Jose Gomez, and Philadelphia, led by Archbishop Charles Chaput.
But their predecessors, respectively Cardinals Roger Mahony and Justin Rigali, while retired, are both under 80 and can still vote in a conclave, and by tradition popes do not like to give two votes to the same diocese.
Then again, Francis is nothing if not unpredictable.
The pope could also send an important signal about where he wants to take the church by naming one or more cardinals who are over 80 and thus do not have the right to vote in a conclave. This is a kind of honorific, often conferred on a priest rather than a bishop as a kind of ecclesiastical gold watch.
The Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit and prolific author, recently tweeted a guess that Francis could give a red hat to the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, an 85-year-old Dominican priest from Peru who is considered a father of liberation theology – a school of thought that was exiled under previous popes but which has found a more sympathetic audience in Francis’ Vatican.
Here's my prediction, based on nothing at all and no sources, for one of the soon-to-be-named cardinals: Gustavo Gutierrez. #Justahunch
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) January 4, 2014
Whatever Francis does, this likely won’t be the 77-year-old pontiff’s last batch of cardinals. The average age of the college is 72, and in a few years he could appoint a significant plurality of electors.
But even if Francis is able to name most of the members of the College of Cardinals who will meet in the Sistine Chapel when he dies or resigns, it hardly means he is in effect picking a successor in his own image.
Just look at Francis’ own election, out of group of cardinals largely chosen by his predecessor, Benedict XVI: a significant number of them joined the other electors in choosing Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis — who has turned out to be about as different from Benedict as a pope can be.
- Could Pope Francis make women cardinals? A pipe dream, and an opening (Oct. 17, 2013)
- The story behind Pope Francis’ election (March 15, 2013)
- The papal election timeline: Coffee, cocktails, then conclave (March 7, 2013)
- Picking the pope: Holy Spirit or ‘groupthink’? (March 7, 2013)
- Everything you need to know about popes and conclaves (March 4, 2013)
- Has there ever been a black or African pope? (March 1, 2013)
- Venting and vetting: The brutal side of papal politics (Feb. 25, 2013)
- White smoke, black pope? The odds against an ‘Obama moment’ (Feb. 21, 2013)