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Choosing cardinals: a modest proposal

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Oct 21, 2010

In yesterday’s reflections on Pope Benedict’s choices of 24 new members for the College of Cardinals, I concentrated on the two Americans who will receive red hats: Archbishops Burke and Wuerl. Today I’d like to add a few more thoughts about the overall composition of the College, and how cardinals are chosen.

Many media accounts of the Pope’s announcement have stressed the heavy proportion of Italians among the Holy Father’s selections. With 10 new cardinals among the 24 selection, Italy is grossly over-represented. But look at the selections a bit more closely, and a different picture emerges. Only one of the new cardinals named by the Pope is the head of an Italian archdiocese; all of the other Italians are officials of the Roman Curia. Look through the list again, and the disproportionate number of Curial appointments is still more evident: 10 of the new cardinal-electors are currently serving at the Vatican. So the Pope has not strengthened the Italian influence within the College, as much as he has strengthened the Curial influence.

Of course, to make that observation is to raise another question—or rather, two questions. Why has the Holy Father appointed so many Italians to posts in the Roman Curia? And why has he decided to give the Curia such heavy influence in the College of Cardinals?

Despite his many years of service at the Vatican, Pope Benedict has never been considered a Curial “insider.” He has occasionally shown his impatience with the Vatican bureaucracy, and from time to time a rumor circulates around Rome, alleging that the Pontiff plans a sweeping reform of the Curia. His choice of new cardinals suggests something quite different. The Pope seems to be comfortable taking advice from Vatican officials, and allowing the future of the papacy to be heavily influenced by the some coterie of Italian prelates who have dominated Vatican affairs for so many generations.

It’s interesting to note that the cardinals elevated by Pope Benedict could soon form a majority in a papal election. True he will have distributed only 61 red hats—nowhere near the 231 that Pope John Paul II passed out during the 9 consistories of his long pontificate. But the cardinals appointed by John Paul II are growing older; another 15 of them will turn 80 within the next 18 months, and thus become ineligible to participate in a conclave. At that point Pope Benedict’s appointees will account for roughly half of the cardinal-electors. Clearly the current Pope’s choices will have an enormous effect on the selection of his successor.

The College of Cardinals serves two purposes: to provide the Pontiff with advice and, upon his death, to choose his successor. In carrying out each of these functions, cardinals help to shape the future of the Catholic Church. So the ideal cardinal is a man who has a deep commitment to the evangelical mission of the Church, a clear understanding of her doctrine, and a practical sense of how to meet contemporary challenges.

How could such men be found? I have a modest proposal.

Rather than thinking of the College of Cardinals as a sort of political body, with representation accorded to the world’s most powerful cities and to the most influential offices of the Vatican, perhaps cardinals should be chosen from among the prelates who have demonstrated their ability as effective apostles. Rather than appointing the heads of major metropolitan archdioceses—the so-called “red hat sees” that traditionally have been guided by a cardinal-archbishop—the Pope might look for bishops who have shown that they can instill new vigor and evangelical purpose into their dioceses, and bring more souls to Christ.

Come to think of it, the same standards could be used to select the pastors who should become bishops, and the bishops who should be give the most major archdiocesan assignments. Look at the rate of baptisms—of both infants and adults—in the candidate’s parish or diocese. Look at the rates of marriage and of divorce. Look at the number and strength of authentic Catholic charitable ventures, and the vigor of the local pro-life movement. Look at the number of new vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Look at the quality of religious instruction at parochial schools and the level of orthodoxy at local Catholic colleges. Look at the level of public discourse in the surrounding community, and the extent to which Catholic social teaching is effectively presented. In short, measure the candidate’s ability to preside over a growing Christian community. The Church has a mission, a mandate from Christ, to preach the Gospel to all nations. In pursuit of that mission we need leadership and guidance from prelates who know how to spread the faith.

If cardinals were selected by those criteria—if the new seats in the College of Cardinals were handed out to the bishops from the fastest-growing dioceses, rather than the largest ones— Italians certainly would not predominate. We might see many more cardinals from the countries in Africa and Asia which now account for most of the Church’s new growth.

Update: A perceptive reader makes this observation:

You forget one detail: The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. It is in fact fitting that Romans and Italians have more input into the process of electing the new Bishop of Rome.

That's a valid point. Pope Benedict-- who is acutely sensitive to the significance of the traditions that surround the papacy, and keenly interested in revitalizing the Christian heritage of Europe-- may be assembling a group of cardinals who can help him (and his successor) to restore the strength and health of Catholicism beginning in Rome. The Vatican is not intended to be a central bureaucracy for the universal Church, but a source of strength and unity for the local churches. A vigorous Church in Rome would serve that purpose better than a vigorous bureaucracy.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ltoscan2645 - Oct. 25, 2010 4:45 PM ET USA

    If I were Pope (it will never happen since I am a lay person) - my first nomination would be Archbishop Charles Chaput, a great Bishop, a scholar, a shepherd with courage running a very orthodox diocese.

  • Posted by: jflare293129 - Oct. 23, 2010 6:36 AM ET USA

    I disagree quite strongly with the last two paragraphs. How can His Holiness truly be our "papa" if he's got too much European influence? Too often, neither the Pope nor the Curia really "get" what America needs; they think we ought to be European. Then too, all the Church's functions DO need competent administrators. From all I've seen, the Vatican fills that role by default. Something about being near the Holy Father routinely.... Funny how that happens, isn't it?

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Oct. 22, 2010 8:48 PM ET USA

    Given the problems in the current Church, I've never been able to understand how even one bishop, or Cardinal, has been appointed who is anything other than the very best the Church has to offer. But there have been many who do not fit that category. Why?

  • Posted by: lfjardine9175 - Oct. 22, 2010 5:12 PM ET USA

    While agreeing in principle - that those who demonstrate success in their mission should become the next leaders, I would be concerned about the "promotion" of an effective pastor away from his flock who he has so carefully led and evangelized. As well not all those who succeed at one level are necessarily going to be successful at the next - we have all heard of (and probably experienced) the Peter Principle. How do we provide formation for future bishops within dioceses is the question?

  • Posted by: kman - Oct. 22, 2010 11:06 AM ET USA

    Sounds like you are describing a "data driven" Church. Please, no.

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