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Which American archbishops—if any—will receive red hats at the February conclave?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 23, 2014

Sometime early in the new year, Pope Francis will reveal the names of the new cardinals who will be elevated at a consistory in February 2015. How many American prelates will be on the list?

Quite likely, none at all.

There are currently 18 US citizens in the College of Cardinals. The only country with a greater representation is Italy, with a staggering 48. By contrast, the entire continent of Africa can boast only 18 cardinals, and Asia only 19. If Pope Francis seeks a geographical balance in the College, he may not want to add to the American contingent.

Look at the numbers in a slightly different way: Today there are 111 cardinals who are under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a papal conclave; 11 of them are Americans. The US accounts for roughly 7% of the world’s Catholic population, but 10% of the cardinal-electors. On this score, too, there would seem to be no urgent need to increase the American representation.

Again there are some striking contrasts: Brazil, with nearly 12% of the world’s Catholics, would have only four votes in a papal conclave today. Mexico, with almost 9%, would have 2 votes; the Philippines, with a Catholic population nearly the same as that of the US, would also have just 2 votes.

The upper limit for the number of cardinal-electors was fixed by St. John Paul II at 120. A Pope has the authority to go beyond that limit at his own discretion—as John Paul II himself did—but it is reasonable to expect that Pope Francis will at least stay close to the guideline. Since Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo will turn 80 in January, and drop off the list of electors, Francis could name ten new voting cardinals while remaining within the normative limit. Mindful that two more cardinals will reach 80 in the spring, he could choose to name an even dozen. (If recent conclaves are any indication, Pope Francis will probably name a few cardinals who are already beyond the age of 80, and thus ineligible to take part in a conclave.)

If he limits himself to 8 to 12 new cardinals, then, and scatters the appointments around the Catholic world, it appears most likely that there will be no American names on the list for the February conclave. But if the Pope does choose 1 or 2 Americans, who are the most likely selections?

Three of America’s largest and most historic archdioceses—Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago—are currently headed by archbishops rather than cardinals. In each case the archdiocese also has a retired archbishop who is under the age of 80, and it is very unusual to allow two cardinals representing the same city into a papal conclave. But in each case there are some special circumstances.

In Philadelphia, retired Cardinal Justin Rigali will turn 80 in April of next year. So if Archbishop Charles Chaput received a red hat, Philadelphia would have two cardinal-electors for only a few weeks. Having taken the helm of the Philadelphia archdiocese in 2011, tackled tough financial problems and sex-abuse scandals, and emerged as one of the leading public voices of the American hierarchy, Archbishop Chaput certainly merits serious consideration for a red hat. And keep in mind that Pope Francis will be visiting Philadelphia next year, to participate in the World Meeting of Families. It might be appropriate for a cardinal to serve as his host.

In Los Angeles, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony will not reach his 80th birthday until February 2016. But Los Angeles is now the largest see in the US, and Archbishop José Gomez has served there since 2011. He too has faced serious problems, including a report that cast a very unfavorable light on his predecessor’s handling of the sex-abuse crisis. A growing Hispanic presence in the American Catholic community could be a reason for the selection of a Mexican-born cardinal.

In Chicago, Archbishop Blaise Cupich was obviously the personal choice of Pope Francis. The recently retired Cardinal Francis George is only 77, but his struggle with cancer makes it unlikely that he would be able to attend a conclave. By awarding Archbishop Cupich the red hat, Pope Francis would very clearly mark him as his own model for the American hierarchy. Yet it might be regarded as unseemly to give such a quick elevation, for a prelate who was only installed as an archbishop in November.

Archbishops Allen Vigneron of Detroit and William Lori of Baltimore are leaders of major archdioceses that were once considered “cardinalitial” sees. But the Detroit archdiocese, like the city itself, has suffered a decline in prestige. The Baltimore archdiocese has been overshadowed by neighboring Washington, and has not been led by a cardinal since the retirement of Cardinal William Keeler in 2007. (Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, Keeler’s successor, received his red hat only after leaving Baltimore.)

As the American population shifts to the south and west, some archdioceses have grown in importance. Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory, a former president of the US bishops’ conference, might merit consideration for a red hat. However, Pope Francis has also indicated that he will not restrict himself to archbishops from “cardinalitial” sees. With this Pope, one can never discount the element of surprise.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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