Pope Francis and the Conclave: Cardinals, Continuity and Innovation

COMMENTARY: These are the keys to the consistory of 2016.

(photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

The consistory for new cardinals announced for Nov. 19 reveals the changing nature of the College of Cardinals and the changing priorities of Pope Francis. The 13 new cardinal-electors named clearly reveal four priorities of the Holy Father.

First, the most obvious aspect of the new cohort is geographical diversity, which has been the hallmark of Pope Francis’ preference for the peripheries. Eleven of the new electors are bishops of dioceses that have never had a cardinal, including Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, as well as Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, Central African Republic; Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, Bangladesh; Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Merida, Venezuela; and Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepantla de Baz, Mexico. Two — Bishop Maurice Piat of Mauritius’ Port Louis and Archbishop John Ribat of Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby — come from island-nations. Three of the electors are the first cardinals from their countries (Central African Republic, Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea), and two of those appointed are already over the age of 80 and so not eligible to vote in a conclave (those from Malaysia and Lesotho).

The Holy Father is continuing a 70-year process begun under Venerable Pius XII, in which “red hats” were spread around the world as the college expanded from about 70 members to its current limit of 120 electors set by Blessed Paul VI. There are nearly 200 cardinals in total, including those over the age of 80.

With the limit of 120 electors, it means that some of the traditional cardinalatial dioceses — Venice, most notable among them — have not received cardinals, as Francis has accelerated the shift away from Italy (which had 50% of the college until World War II) and Europe.

In the United States, that process of reallocation began in 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI made Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston a cardinal and chose not to continue the practice of having cardinals in Baltimore and Detroit.

Second, the Nov. 19 consistory will highlight a less-remarked preference of Pope Francis — that for the Vatican diplomatic corps. The Holy Father chose the apostolic nuncio in Syria, Italian Archbishop Mario Zenari, as a sign of his solidarity with that “beloved and tormented” country. St. John Paul II did something similar in 1994, when he made Archbishop Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the youngest cardinal in the Church (at age 49), a sign of his solidarity with the suffering people of the Balkans.

Francis, though, did not express his solidarity with Syria by choosing a Syrian bishop, but, rather, his Italian ambassador in Syria. It is the latest indication of the high esteem in which the Holy Father holds the priests of the diplomatic corps.In 2013, he named Beniamino Stella, head of the Vatican’s academy for training diplomats, as the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, soon after naming him a cardinal.

That the head of the department responsible for the formation and identity of clergy would be a lifetime diplomat surprised some who wrongly assumed that Francis prefers only those priests with direct pastoral experience. Likewise, when Francis restricted the practice of granting parish priests the title of “monsignor” to only those over age 65, he continued to make monsignors of younger priests in the diplomatic corps and those working in the Curial bureaucracy.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, another lifetime diplomat made a cardinal and given prominence as the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, was actually given the red zucchetto of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio immediately after the Pope’s election in the conclave, where Baldiserri served as its secretary. It was an old custom of the privileges of the papal court that had been largely abandoned by popes for the last century as a relic of a bygone age, but Pope Francis reinstituted it.

Third, the latest consistory indicates that Pope Francis is less inclusive than his predecessors in the theological and pastoral profile of his cardinals. Those often held up as the great leaders of a more liberal Catholicism — Cardinals Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Godfried Danneels of Brussels and Carlo Martini of Milan — were all elevated by St. John Paul II.

Pope Francis is not inclined to include more conservative prelates in his selections. The choice of Archbishop Tobin, known principally for his championing of the assertively progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is a clear sign that, while diversity in geography is essential, rather more homogeneity in viewpoints is preferred.

The choice of Archbishop Tobin instead of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the first Hispanic archbishop of the nation’s largest diocese, is the clear and significant surprise of the 2016 consistory. Perhaps Archbishop Gomez’s lack of enthusiasm at the 2015 synod on the family for the “Kasper proposal” counted against him.

And while the two other American choices — Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Kevin Farrell, appointed in August as prefect of the new Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life — are in conformity with traditional criteria for cardinalatial appointments, both selections also adhere to the current papacy’s preference for progressives.

Fourth, this consistory highlights one of the most curious aspects of Francis’ cardinalatial appointments — the case of Brussels.

Cardinal Danneels, appointed personally by Pope Francis to both synods on the family as a champion of the Kasper proposal, retired in 2010 after more than 30 years as archbishop of Brussels, a leader of the European Church’s liberal wing. He wanted Bishop Josef De Kesel, his auxiliary bishop and protégé, to succeed him.

Pope Benedict XVI thought that three decades of Danneels’ pastoral approach was enough and selected instead André-Joseph Léonard. That’s when the cardinalatial dimension took a curious turn. Danneels did not turn 80 until after Benedict XVI abdicated, and it is convention that there are not two electors from the same diocese; so in the normal course of events, Archbishop Léonard would have had to wait until 2014, after Danneels was 80.

How do we know that Léonard was not Danneels’ choice and that he preferred De Kesel? Because in 2010, the former apostolic nuncio in Belgium, Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, in a most unusual breach of diplomatic manners, attacked Benedict XVI for the succession in Brussels, criticizing Archbishop Léonard as a bad choice, made over his own and Daneels’ objections. Archbishop Rauber further revealed that while he was nuncio in Switzerland, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had four times complained about him to the Secretariat of State.

Even after Cardinal Danneels turned 80, Pope Francis declined to make Archbishop Léonard a cardinal. Instead, in 2015, Francis elevated Archbishop Rauber to the College of Cardinals as one of the distinguished prelates over the age of 80. In ecclesiastical Rome, the public humiliation of Archbishop Léonard, the vindication of Cardinal Danneels and the approbation for Archbishop Rauber’s attack on Pope Benedict was widely noted.

Later in 2015, Archbishop Léonard retired, to be replaced with Archbishop De Kesel, the original choice of Danneels and Rauber. That he would immediately be made a cardinal, despite representing the epicenter of the dying Catholicism of Northern Europe, is the final act in the curious drama of the Holy Father’s unique relationship to the see of Brussels.

The primacy of the peripheries, of diplomatic personnel, of progressive pastoral theology and of Brussels.

These are the keys to the consistory of 2016.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.