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How Pope Francis has remade the College of Cardinals

Pope Francis on Sunday announced the creation of 16 new voting-age members of the College of Cardinals at a consistory to be held on Aug. 27. The list of names has caused feverish excitement within the Catholic world; Francis has not held a consistory since 2020. 

The English-speaking press has focused particularly on the surprise inclusion of Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, with his appointment being widely interpreted as a pointed, albeit coded, response to the current debate in the Church in America over Archbishop Salvatore Codileone’s decision to bar House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Communion in her home diocese; McElroy is an outspoken opponent of enforcing sacramental discipline on Catholic politicians.

While Francis is known to be spontaneous, the decision to appoint a cardinal is usually made more than 9 days before the announcement, so the direct cause and effect of those two events seems debatable, at best.

But McElroy’s appointment, as well as the balance of the list, do illustrate how the composition, purpose, and nature of the College of Cardinals has changed under Francis.

In sum, over the course of his pontificate, Francis has effectively ended the function of the college as a regular advisory body as a group by halting the practice of regular consistories, preferring instead to rely on a smaller number of personal advisors. At the same time, he has broken the representative link between major dioceses and membership of the college, while also ensuring a more globally diverse membership of any future conclave.

Those changes may prove to be one of the pope’s most lasting legacies - but will likely not shape the election of his successor in the ways most commonly predicted.


What’s the college for?

The timing of both the list and of the consistory, which will formally install the new cardinals, is itself a considerable departure from custom — including the decision to hold the event in August, when Rome has customarily emptied for the summer holiday.

The College of Cardinals, as an ecclesiastical institution, is meant to assist the pope in the governance of the universal Church, and especially giving him advice in matters of grave importance — this has taken place historically in group meetings called consistories, which also include the creation of new cardinals as members of the college.

Francis has not held a consistory, a formal session of the college, in nearly two years. Even before the most recent gap, he had already moved away from the practice of two meetings a year, shifting to only one gathering of the cardinals per year since his election in 2013.

Pope Francis has essentially dispensed with the use of consistories for discussion and seeking counsel; the pope prefers instead to rely on his kitchen cabinet, the Council of Cardinal Advisors (sometimes called the C9), with input from unofficial papal advisors in Rome, and help from fellow members of the Society of Jesus (three of the Vatican’s largest departments are now led by Jesuits). 

As it relates to the college’s most famous function, electing the pope in a conclave, the move away from regular semi-annual meetings means that when they meet in August, many of the 83 voting-age cardinals will not have met before, let alone gotten to really know one another. 

Given the growing concerns in Rome about the 85 year-old pope’s health, it is also entirely possible that August will be the last time the cardinals see each other before the next conclave.

The lack of regular meetings, together with Francis’ efforts to geographically diversify the college’s membership (after August, there will be twice as many voting-age cardinals from Africa and Asia as there were in the 2013 conclave that elected Francis), means that the next conclave will be, in many respects, a meeting among relative strangers, rather than the deliberations of a mostly familiar group.

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Who’s in?

The pope has spoken of a desire to see the college better reflect the “peripheries” of the Church, and has followed through, appointing a far greater share of cardinals from Asia and Africa than in the past. 

After August, a total of 41 voting-age cardinals will come from Asia, India, Africa, and Oceania, compared to 22 in the 2013 conclave. By contrast, Francis has named only one cardinal from Eastern Europe during his entire pontificate — elevating the papal almoner Konrad Krajewski in 2018.

Given the shifting demographics of the global Church, the pope's appointment practices will certainly make for a more representative voting pool in the next conclave. But no one is sure what that pool might actually mean for a future papal election — few of the pope’s new appointments have well-known public personas in Western media, which means that media analysis tends to skew toward both the opinions and prospects from Europe and the Americas, even if that won’t be how things play out in a conclave.

And as Francis has shifted the balance of the college towards regional diversity, he has also departed from many of the customary practices regarding the nomination of cardinals - and quashed the customary notion that some sees will be necessarily led by a cardinal. 

McElroy’s appointment has been juxtaposed in the media with the supposed “passing over” of his metropolitan archbishop, Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who leads the largest diocese in the United States, is the president of the USCCB, and the first Hispanic to hold either office. 

Of course, no bishop has the right to become a cardinal, but Francis does seem mostly to have dispensed with the notion of “cardinalatial sees,” the unofficial title given to the largest archdioceses whose bishops are traditionally named cardinals, both in the United States and in Europe.

At the same time, at least when appointing cardinals from Europe and the Americas, the pope  seems to prefer choosing bishops perceived to be most aligned with his own theological and pastoral styles. 

That itself is something of a departure from recent practice. 

Previous recent popes, especially St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, made it a visible habit to pick cardinals from among their ideological opponents, ensuring that even under supposedly conservative popes, outspoken progressives like Walter Kasper, Reinhart Marx, and Joseph Bernadin gave the college a catholic breadth of opinion for the pope to hear. 

That practice, of course, was much maligned, just as Francis’ practice is. If there is continuity, it is in the fact that popes can’t please everybody. 

Nevertheless, most of the voting-age cardinals are now Francis appointees, and when one of their number is eventually elected pope, it’s possible, perhaps likely, that he will make his own appointments in the Francis way. 

If this becomes the new normal for the college, it could reshape the very concepts of both a consistory and the college itself into a mode decidedly more political than synodal, with the Church’s different wings looking for an eventual hegemony in the conclave, and very little sense of deliberative discernment, or fraternal dialogue, among interlocutors who disagree. 

Some might favor that shift, or see it as the only way to settle the fundamental questions of ecclesiology which have been debated in the Church since Vatican Council II. On the other hand, a conclave which must achieve consensus among diverse perspectives is a kind of protection against schism — and ideological conformity among cardinals could hasten exactly the kind of rupture in the Church many now fear from groups like the German bishops’ conference.

None of that, of course, would be a new phenomenon in the Church’s history.

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A lasting legacy?

The College of Cardinals does not exist by divine institution, and popes have historically used the college according to their own best judgment. Pope Francis is not alone in placing his own stamp on the college. But there are some implications of the Francis changes which are perhaps unexpected.

Among them has been the creation of, at least in public perception, a kind of two-tiered cardinalate — those working within curial leadership or seen to be personally “close” to Francis, and other voting cardinals around the world, who are otherwise uninvolved in advising the pope on global Church affairs.

If that pattern is continued by his eventual successors, the result could be more apparently personality-driven appointments to the college, and an accelerated “regionalization” of the Church, with the locally elected leadership of bishops’ conferences ever more visibly distinct from those chosen to speak on the local Church’s behalf in Rome.

As an immediate legacy, the effects of Francis’ decisions are not clear, and predictions about what kind of pope a future conclave might elect are at this point guesswork, at best. While nearly two-thirds of the cardinals will be Francis appointees, many of them remain, ecclesiologically speaking, relatively unknown quantities — even among themselves. 

Francis is often accused of “stacking the deck” for a future conclave. But the “pope of surprises” might have actually done the opposite — ensuring the election to choose his eventual successor is the most spontaneous of the modern era.

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