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The College of Cardinals: some light-hearted math

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 11, 2023

Easing back into my work after a restful vacation, I find myself pondering one of those oddities that characterize the life of the Vatican. It’s not a terribly important issue; I’ll dive into more serious matters in the next few days, as I come back up to full speed. Still it is a curiosity, and I hope some readers will share my fascination with a phenomenon that has amused me for years.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI set a limit to the number of cardinals who could vote in a papal conclave: 120. That limit remains in place today. But there are currently 121 cardinals eligible to vote. And Pope Francis has announced his plans to name eighteen more.

This is not another one of those occasions on which Pope Francis is ignoring precedents. Ignoring the rules, yes—as is his wont. But not the precedents. Pope John Paul II routinely ignored the statutory limit. After the consistory of February 2001 (more on that later) there were 128 eligible cardinal-electors; after the consistory of November 2003, there were 135. During the first two consistories of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI observed the 120-elector ceiling. But when he awarded 24 red hats in November 2010, the number of electors crept just above, to 121. Then in February 2012 he blew through the ceiling, bringing the number of cardinal-electors to 125.

Again, this is not a terribly serious matter. No one questions the right of the Roman Pontiff to appoint the cardinals he chooses. No one suggests that if a conclave occurs soon after the consistory, only 120 cardinals will be seated, and late arrivals may not have a vote.

Still I find it interesting, because the Pope names the cardinals, and the Pope sets the limit on the number of cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave. Yet in the years since Pope Paul VI set that limit, three different Pontiffs have chosen to break the rule rather than amend it.

Pope John Paul II overhauled the rules for a papal conclave in 1996, with Universi Dominici Gregis. But he left the limit of 120 electors intact—at least on paper. Pope Benedict XVI made his own amendments to the conclave rules in 2013, but again did not change the maximum number of electors. Either one of those Pontiffs could have changed the figure to, say, 140—or to whatever figure would coincide with the number of new cardinals they planned to appoint. But neither did.

For the foreseeable future, then, the College of Cardinals will include an “illegal” number of electors. No one will blow a whistle and call a foul; there will be no adverse consequences. But some people—including your faithful correspondent—will be puzzled.

(The exact number of electors will change, of course, as some cardinals die and other reach the age of 80, at which they become ineligible. Two retired Vatican officials—Cardinals Versaldi and Comastri—will pass that benchmark before the September consistory, so for just a few days the number of electors will be within the proper bounds. Six more cardinals will turn 80 by the end of this calendar year. But barring a rash of premature deaths, the awarding of 22 red hats (including 18 for eligible electors) will leave the figure well above the limit for months to come.)

What’s the harm in having an excess of electors? Other than the possibility of crowded seating arrangements in the Sistine Chapel, perhaps none. But what if all the Popes, past and present, had decided to adhere to the statutory limit? Imagine, for instance, that as he looked forward to the consistory of 2001, Pope John Paul II decided that he had to trim eight names off the list, to ensure that only 120 cardinals would be eligible electors. And suppose—just suppose—that he chose not to confer red hats upon:

  1. Theodore McCarrick
  2. Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga
  3. Cormac Murphy-O’Connor
  4. Walter Kasper
  5. Francisco Javier Errazuriz
  6. Karl Lehmann
  7. Claudio Hummes, and
  8. Jorge Bergoglio

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Gramps - Jul. 26, 2023 5:11 PM ET USA

    That is funny!

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 15, 2023 12:24 AM ET USA

    To the list at the article’s end, I can only respond, “if only that had happened …”

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 13, 2023 8:29 PM ET USA

    The process of recommendations of episcopal candidates for promotions seems broken, if not corrupt. Homosexuality appears to be the major issue.