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The Vatican purge, continued: packing the College of Cardinals

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 26, 2017

Yesterday, writing about how Pope Francis has packed the College of Cardinals with prelates who share his particular point of view, I cited the words of Father Tom Reese, who said that if Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI had done the same thing, “Frankly, I would have been outraged.” That outrage would have been reasonable, I wrote—just as it is now reasonable to be outraged by the Pope’s blatant attempts to silence those who disagree with him.

Several perceptive readers disagreed with me. It would not have been outrageous, they argued, if the previous Popes had chosen not to promote prelates such as Cardinals Kasper, Marx, Daneels, Mahony, and McCarrick. That’s a valid point.

The Pope—any Pope—has every right to choose his own men for elevation to the College of Cardinals. The way he exercises that right, however, reveals a great deal about how he understands his role as leader of the universal Church.

To qualify for membership in the College of Cardinals, a prelate should show an unassailable character, a firm commitment to the established doctrines of the Church, and a willingness—signified by those red vestments—to give his blood, if necessary, in defense of the faith. (If you want to make the case that some cardinals have fallen short of those standards, go ahead; I won’t argue.) Beyond that, how should the Pope make his selections?

The College of Cardinals has two main functions: to act as a circle of advisers for the Pope, and, when the time comes, to elect his successor. For each of those purposes, a prudent Pontiff draws on the diverse resources of the universal Church, appointing cardinals with different backgrounds and different viewpoints. Ideally, when they meet in conclave, the cardinals should represent all of the world’s faithful Catholics, with their many different cares and concerns.

During the past century, Roman Pontiffs have made a deliberate effort to give the College of Cardinals a more international flavor. That development showed a recognition that the Holy Spirit might have something special to say to the universal Church, through the voices of Catholic leaders from Africa or Asia. By expanding the membership in the College, across every possible dimension, the Pope provides more room for the Spirit to speak to his Church. Conversely, by restricting membership, the Pope could restrict the movement of the Spirit.

Pope Francis has followed the trend toward internationalization of the College. But he has restricted his choices in another way, showing a strong preference for prelates who share his own perspective on the Church’s pastoral priorities. In fact that preference has been so apparent that Father Reese—who fully approves—said that the Pope’s approach to the appointment of cardinals has been “the most revolutionary thing Francis has done in terms of church governance.”

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI took a much more conventional approach. They chose new cardinals primarily from among the archbishops of the world’s most important archdioceses, or from the leadership of the Roman Curia. (Their few unconventional choices were, as a rule, prelates over the age of 80, for whom the red hat was a recognition of their past service to the Church; because of their age, these cardinals would not be eligible to participate in a papal election.) They obviously did not exclude prelates who had different theological perspectives.

And isn’t that a much wiser approach? If the Pope wants sound advice from his cardinals, he wants to hear from men who will challenge his way of thinking. A humble Pontiff will guard against the temptation to think that his perspective is the only valid Catholic perspective. He will realize, too, that even if his policies are right for the Church today, the Church of the future might need different policies.

The Roman Pontiff is—or should be—the focus of unity in the Church. Pope John XXIII once remarked that as universal pastor, he was responsible for all Catholics, including both those who had their foot on the gas and those who had their foot on the brake. Pope Francis clearly has his foot on the gas. But insofar as he is ignoring and excluding prelates who have their feet on the brake—and who would urge him to do the same—he is recklessly increasing the danger of a crack-up.

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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  • Posted by: MWCooney01 - Jan. 27, 2017 9:04 AM ET USA

    The Church has entered a dark time, but it has done so in the past, and Truth will eventually prevail. I only pray that not many souls are not lost by the current demonically inspired wishy-washiness that echoes the "What is truth?" of one attempting to conform to the "reality" of the world in rejection of that Eternal Truth. Pray the Rosary, and pray to Our Lady for swift deliverance.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 26, 2017 11:01 PM ET USA

    None of the Apostles or the many Saints who followed Christ throughout the ages, could be described as "liberal" or "conservative," as our Cardinals and Bishops are frequently being described. The proper gauge of one's quality as a Christian, is faithfulness to Christ and his teaching with willingness to struggle against sin even to the point of shedding one's own blood. (Heb. 12:4). Religious faith based on unchangeable divine truths will be always "conservative" by its very nature.