Cardinal Points

Cardinal Points

[January 17, 2014]


In the past few days there have been newsworthy developments from Rome,

  • The official announcement of the 19 prelates to be elevated to the personal rank of cardinal at the upcoming February 22 consistory;
  • An in-depth front-page article above-the-fold in the New York Times issue of January 14, four columns wide, 2000+ words, pics;
  • The first visit to the Vatican by a U.S. secretary of state in nine years, on January 14, paving the way for an eventual meeting between the Pope and the President later this year.

Part of the ‘Francis effect’ is a surge in the relevance of what is happening within the Vatican, and the consequences throughout the world for 1.2 billion Catholics in over 200,000 parishes, clustered into 5,000 dioceses and eparchates.

The imminent investiture of 19 cardinals is one of the most noteworthy management actions by Pope Francis in the ten months since his election last March.  The commentary below picks up on what has been reported and adds some personal observations, including promotions that did not materialize and significant changes within the College of Cardinal Electors regional alignments.

In an absolute monarchy like the papal state, the geographic distribution and balance within the powerful College of Cardinal Electors is a closely watched indicator of shifts in the influence of regional blocs, particularly as secularization continues to sweep across Europe and North America, at present the most over-represented regions.

It appears that the tempo of activity is increasing after the years of stagnation under Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus.  As Lenin wrote,

“…sometimes decades pass and nothing happens, and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”

Cardinal Electors and Regional Blocs

As widely reported, on January 12 last at the noon Angelus in Rome the names of 19 prelates who will receive their ‘red hats’ at the February 22 consistory were announced.

Sixteen of these men are under the age of 80, hence eligible to be cardinal-electors until they ‘time-out’ upon reaching their 80th birthdays.

The other three selected for red hats are ‘over-80s’ and become cardinals in recognition of their accomplishments, but they do not process into the Sistine Chapel for the conclave balloting, i.e. the papal election.

A few points should be kept firmly in mind:

  • There is by current statute an overall limit of 120 cardinal electors; this could be modified by the Pope, but he has chosen not to do this;
  • There is a two-thirds threshold among the cardinals present and voting, the super majority required for a candidate to be elected pope; and
  • Currently, there is the blatantly disproportionate influence of the Italian and the American cardinals’ clique:
  • At last March’s conclave, there were 39 cardinals from these two countries; this was precisely one-third of the total electors’ votes in the chapel, lodged in the hands of cardinals from two countries with only 10% of Catholics world-wide; the magic of the one-third number is that with a two-thirds super majority rule, these 39 cardinals could prevent (with one additional supporting cardinal) the election of someone not to their liking.

In summary,

The voting weight of the largest national contingent (from Italy) has been diluted, as the balance of power within the Electoral College shifts from the Developed Countries towards the Developing World, particularly Latin America;

No U.S. prelates were on the promotion list;

During 2014, there are 13 incumbent Cardinal-Electors who will time-out; assuming this pope has the opportunity of filling these positions in next year’s consistory, between the 16 to be elevated in a few weeks, and another 13 openings, Pope Francis has the ability to handpick almost one-fourth of the electors in a future conclave.

It is now more than a third of a century (36 years, actually) since an Italian sat on the Throne of San Pietro, with an intervening westward movement of popes from Poland to Germany to Argentina.

For the media, the headline after the announcement of the prelates’ names could have been:

  • U.S. breaks even; Italy down 18%; Latin America poised for growth.

The Roman Curia (four of the sixteen Electors)

Four Curial prelates were promoted.  No surprises, these nominations may be viewed as ex officio promotions, i.e. by virtue of the positions these individuals hold, since by tradition the incumbent is a cardinal:

Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, Italy;

Prefect of Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, Germany;

Prefect of Clergy Beniamino Stella, Italy; and

Secretary General of the Bishops Synod, Lorenzo Baldisseri, Italy

Not promoting these four Roman Curiales would have been as awkward as having a chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff held at the three-star rank, while responsible for coordinating his four-star colleagues – the chiefs of the uniformed services.

The Residential Sees (twelve of the sixteen Electors)


Here regional politics matter a lot, since these cardinals remain in their home countries, with large dioceses, involvement in local politics, and leading roles in the national and regional bishops conferences:

  • The Developing World gets nine red hats (Latin America with five, Asia with two, and Africa with two);
  • The Developed World gets three (Italy, Britain and Canada).

The United States:

[Eleven electors at the March 2013 conclave; no time-outs in 2014.]

Not a single one of the 19 cardinals-to-be is an American.  It is worth pondering this under-reported peculiarity, but many of the U.S. media failed to mention it.

Locally, the Boston Globe simply picked up an AP dispatch from the Vatican (which did not mention the U.S. shut-out), and failed to run anything of its own.  This just a few days after the Globe’s new owner gave a speech declaring the paper’s mission to be ‘aggressively relevant’; hmmm.

Another American angle that did not get much play was, as Sherlock once observed, the dog that did not bark…the fact that the incumbent archbishops of Philly and LA were NOT selected for promotion, although these important Sees are traditionally led by cardinals.

Perhaps what factored into the non-selection of LA’s Archbishop Jose Gomez and Philly’s Archbishop Charles Chaput is that both dioceses are still struggling with the after-shocks of clergy sexual abuse, and have awkward elephants in the room:

Their previous leaders, Cardinals Roger Mahony and Justin Rigali, are now retired, but remain eligible cardinal-electors until they time-out in 2016 and 2015 respectively.

Someone suggested that this is the impediment to the promotion of the incumbents…hogwash…Boston’s Archbishop Sean O’Malley received his red hat in 2006, at a time when his unlamented predecessor, Bernard Law, still had five years of shelf-life as an elector.

Or perhaps some of the cardinali americani are not as treasured as they were in the past, especially in light of the very public papal politicking of two of these luminaries during the March, 2013 conclave:

One of them actually blogged that no cardinal goes into the conclave with the ambition of being pope.


[Twenty-eight electors at the March, 2013 conclave; five time-outs in 2014.]

Barring future nominations, by the beginning of 2015 the Italian electoral contingent drops down to 23, quite a reduction from the 28 cardinal electors at the March, 2013 conclave, who thought they had the luxury of splitting their support between two paesani  – Cardinals Bertone and Scola.

In anticipation of Francis’ first batch of cardinals, it had been expected that two leading Italian Sees currently headed by mere archbishops, the Archdioceses of Turin and Venice, would have their incumbents promoted to red hats.  Didn’t happen.

This is especially peculiar given that Venice enjoys the special status of ‘patriarchate’, and has been a launching pad for popes, with three of its patriarchs moving down to Rome over the past hundred years:

St. Pius X: Blessed John XXIII; and John Paul I (the 33-day pope; cfr. The Godfather: Part III for details).


Other Dioceses:


One of the bizarre actions taken by Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, during the strange interregnum between his resignation announcement (February 13) and his step-down (February 28), was to reshuffle the committee of cardinals tasked with the oversight of the (sigh) Vatican Bank, and to appoint his ‘Dick Cheney’ (apologies to the former Veep), Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, as the committee chair for a five-year term.

[Imagine what the media would have reported if Richard Milhous Nixon had changed out the chairman of the Fed during that resignation week of August 5, 1974, between his announcement and his good-bye wave on August 9.]

Just two days ago, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Bertone had been removed from the IOR’s oversight committee.

Elegant timing.


The one Italian See that did have its archbishop awarded a red hat was Perugia, with the selection of Archbishop Gualtiero Bassetti.  Since at least the early 20th century, this See has never had a cardinal as its ordinary.  It is not a stretch to conclude that because the archdiocese has Assisi in its territory, Pope Francis wished to send yet another signal about his strong affinity with his chosen name-sake.


On the other hand, Dublin’s ordinary, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, was not selected.  The AP reported that he

has angered some in the Vatican by strongly criticizing how the hierarchy handled the worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal.”


Regarding a timed-out (and unlamented) cardinal from Boston, the current issue of Vanity Fair has an interview with singer/actor Diahann Carroll; she is asked the standard battery of Marcel Proust questions, and one of her responses is striking:

Question:  Which living person do you most despise?

Answer:    Cardinal Law.

It might have been ‘opportune’ if – at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis here – some of Boston’s church-going political apparatchiks had displayed at least a fraction of Ms. Carroll’s courage.

New York & Sydney:

A papal letter was issued a day after the release of the names of the 19 prelates selected for promotion, with some interesting words for the cardinals-designate from Pope Francis:

“…please, receive this designation with a simple and humble heart.  And, while you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness, or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty [emphasis added]…

Hmmm, what is that all about?

Perhaps the habit of Sydney’s ordinary (and other red hats, to be fair) who on occasion flaunts the cappa magna, a bright red silk ‘train’ ten meters long (almost a first down in the NFL), requiring clerical attendants to hold the hem.

Or perhaps it refers to New York’s media-friendly ordinary who brought a large entourage to his Rome installation as cardinal in February, 2012, with:

Lavish festivities over several days;

Reports of two chartered 747s to accommodate the 1,000 accompagnatori from GothamCity; and

The title of ‘Mother of the Consistory” bestowed by the American press on the newly minted cardinal’s mamma.

The 98-year old cardinaldesignate:

One of the timed-out prelates to be elevated is really timed-out, Archbishop Loris Capovilla, former private secretary to Pope John XXIII; age 98.

This cardinal-designate was widely considered to be the good angel perched on the good pope’s shoulder, the source of much of the innovation during Pope John’s short but epochal papacy.  Volumes have been written about Vatican II, and the debate is by no means over.

But it may be lost to many that another major initiative of Pope John was an effort to steer the two superpowers away from nuclear confrontation, with his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, released just a few months after things nearly spun out of control during the October, 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Archbishop Capovilla took a lot of flak, including ‘friendly fire’, for his role in bringing the Holy See into the Cold War debate.

Pope Francis recognition of Capovilla, decades after the fact, is a signal of how seriously he takes the spreading conflagrations in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.


Finally, in sub-Sahara Africa the archbishop of Ouagadougou was selected for promotion to cardinal.

The media have not provided a translation of the name of the country in question, Burkina Faso.  Once upon a time it was known as Upper Volta, a colonial legacy.

The current name translates from a local dialect as ‘Land of the Erect Men’, according to a British friend, an old African hand out of a John LeCarre’ novel.

Global Catholic Demographics

Those of a certain age may recall the Washington debates during the 1960s about ‘one man, one vote’, with rural electoral districts having disproportionate influence at the ballot box when compared with urban and suburban districts.

If you think of the advanced economies of Europe and North America as the globe’s cities, and the developing countries mired in poverty as the rural areas (according to Chairman Mao, anyway), then the Catholic Church has stood this anomaly on its head by stacking its conclave with electors from wealthy nations that are secularizing and emptying out churches, while marginalizing the conclave influence of nations with high population growth, significant Catholic presence, and an acute need for material and pastoral care.

It’s all in the numbers, with two developed countries outweighing developing countries on the periferie by an ‘order of magnitude’ (a factor of ten, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper [The Big Bang Theory] would explain):

  • Italy today with 25 electors and 50 million Catholics has
    • one cardinal for every 2 million faithful;
  • The U.S. with 11 cardinal electors and about 70 million has about
    • one cardinal for every 6 million;
  • Latin America with 18 cardinals and 507 million Catholics has
    • one cardinal for every 28 million;
  • ThePhilippines, with two cardinals and 80 million Catholics has
    • one cardinal for every 40 million.

End Comment

Steering a 2,000 year old institution with truly global reach has been compared with trying to maneuver a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier.

Actually it may be tougher because of the enormous inertia of the status quo, built up during the last years of John Paul and the entire papacy of Benedict.

Moreover, while from the outside the Church may seem to be a monolith, the internal tensions are sharp.  Remember Vatileaks?  And the captain on the bridge turned 77 just one month ago.

In his first ten months of service he has certainly set a new tone, but perhaps most importantly, in world affairs he has made the Church relevant again to the resolution of many of the most intractable contemporary issues – poverty and war, to pick just a couple.

And by his personal example he is entirely serious about tackling the disgusting spectacle of clericalism with its trappings of opulence…he himself has used words like ‘leprosy’ and ‘unctuousness’ in describing these afflictions.

Through the upcoming consistory, he is promoting from the ranks a new cadre of four-stars, men (only men, for now) who are expected to share his vision.  A very tall order indeed.  But in a slow and deliberate fashion, the ground seems to be shifting.

Some in the Curia (and in the USCCB) are muttering that while Francis is a good and saintly fellow, he doesn’t seem to have a game plan, but is merely improvising.  This echoes the rap on Christopher Columbus,


…someone who didn’t know where he was going and didn’t know where he had arrived…


But here we are dealing with the first-ever Jesuit pope, a pontefice who has not lost his well-honed ability to think, his shrewdness in projecting his public persona, and his courage to speak clearly.

The most cynical French diplomat during the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic eras, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a former Catholic bishop laicized by Le Pape du Jour, had this to say about the Jesuits:

Whether you agree with them or not, everyone finds in the Jesuits that precious note of reason.”


Btw…In anticipation of next Sunday’s NFC conference title game, while I am on a plane headed to Rome:

Ite, patriae amantes’  [‘go pats’].