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Why name new cardinals now? The Pope's mysterious announcement.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 24, 2012

Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement that he is naming 6 new cardinals raises at least three intriguing questions:

Why now?

The Pope has already elevated 22 prelates to the College of Cardinals this year, at a consistory held in February. Never before in the post-Vatican II era—in fact not since the 1920s—has a Roman Pontiff held two consistories for the elevation of new cardinals in a single calendar year.

Assuming that the Holy Father wants to stay within the limit of 120 cardinal-electors, there are only 4 openings now, with 2 more to occur (as current cardinals reach the age of 80 and lose their eligibility as electors) before the November consistory. So the Pope will be filling all the available spots. If he had waited until the end of March 2013, he could have named a dozen new voting cardinals.

The Pope could have named other cardinals who were over the age of 80, and thus not eligible as electors, but he chose to keep the number of new cardinals unusually small, selecting only a half-dozen. The last time a Pontiff named such a small class of new cardinals was in June 1977, when Pope Paul VI raised only four men to the College. At the time, it was widely suspected that Pope Paul was clearing the way for his chosen successor by making his longtime ally, Archbishop Giovanni Benelli of Florence, a cardinal. Cardinal Benelli would never become Pope, of course. But ironically Pope Paul did confer a red hat on a successor at that 1977 consistory: the young Archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger.

In 1977 Pope Paul’s health was failing, and the June consistory was to be his last one. Some Vatican-watchers have questioned whether Pope Benedict is sensing that his own time is limited, and has called the consistory quickly to be sure that he leaves no important business undone. But none of the Pope’s six selections seem to represent urgent appointments. And more important there is no known reason, aside from his advancing age (he is now 85), to believe that Pope Benedict is nearing the end of his reign. So the Pope’s reasons for his sudden announcement and quick consistory remain mysterious.

Is geographical diversity a major factor?

In February, many reporters remarked that the new cardinals would add to the European dominance of the College of Cardinals. Indeed 16 of the 22 new cardinals were European, and 7 were Italian. Only one of the new cardinals at the February 2012 consistory was from Latin America, and none from Africa.

For his 2nd consistory of the year, however, the Pope has not chosen a single European prelate. His selections include the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church and India’s Syro-Malankara Church, along with Nigerian, Colombian, and Filipino prelates. Only one of the new cardinals is currently working in Rome: the American Archbishop James Harvey.

When Vatican-watchers speculate about the prelates who are likely to become cardinals, they generally begin their lists with the leaders of the Roman Curia. But the Pope’s list for November 2012 does not even include the prefect of the most important Vatican dicastery, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: his own successor, Archbishop Gerhard Müller.

The Pope seems to have chosen deliberately to broaden the geographical diversity of the College of Cardinals, to dilute the influence of the European cardinals and of the Roman Curia.

An echo of the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal?

Yet there was one official of the Roman Curia listed among the new cardinals: Archbishop Harvey, the prefect of the pontifical household. And here we come to the most interesting of the Pope’s selections.

It is not remarkable that the prefect of the pontifical household would become a cardinal. The last two men to hold that position, Cardinals Jacques-Paul Martin and Dino Monduzzi, both received a red hat when they left their post in the apostolic palace. But both of those prelates were entering retirement, whereas Archbishop Harvey, at 63, is still comparatively young.

As he announced that Archbishop Harvey would become a cardinal, Pope Benedict also revealed that he would name the American prelate as archpriest of the Roman basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls. This too is an unusual appointment, since the status of archpriest is usually conferred on a prelate close to retirement age. At 63, with 14 years of service in the apostolic palace, Archbishop Harvey might have been a logical candidate for appointment to a major metropolitan see in his native America. But once a prelate becomes archpriest of a Roman basilica, he is usually there to stay—at least until his retirement from ministry.

The news that Archbishop Harvey will enter the College of Cardinals comes just a day after a Vatican tribunal released its formal verdict in the case of Paolo Gabriele. Is it possible to ignore the fact that Gabriele was a member of the pontifical household, under Archbishop Harvey’s supervision? The Vatican has never disclosed the contents of a report submitted to the Pope by a commission of cardinals assigned to investigate the leaks. It is possible, surely, that the commission suggested some changes in the administration of the pontifical household.

No one has suggested that the Milwaukee native should bear the blame for the “Vatileaks” scandal. Still the fact remains that just as the “Vatileaks” story dies down, Archbishop Harvey is a surprise choice for a red hat and for a new job which, however prestigious, gives him little hope of any further promotion.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: dpatrick2 - Dec. 17, 2012 1:34 PM ET USA

    It seems as the Pope is 'promoting his troubles away" in the case of Archbishop Harvey, who could have been given jurisdiction over a long defunct diocese in Africa.

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Nov. 02, 2012 4:27 PM ET USA

    Regarding Cardinal Harvey and the Vatileaks scandal, is this a matter of keep your friends close and your enemies closer?

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Oct. 31, 2012 1:29 PM ET USA

    The analysis is cogent and interesting; living near Washington, DC, I appreciate and enjoy astute political analysis. But -- Does this remind anybody of Jesus and the Apostles? Just asking...

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