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Crowding the conclave

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 26, 2020

The Pope, and the Pope alone, sets the rules for a papal conclave. The Pope, and the Pope alone, can change those rules— whenever he wants, for whatever reason he chooses.

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The current rules stipulate that no more than 120 cardinals can participate in a conclave. That rule was set by Pope Paul VI and confirmed by Pope John Paul II. Pope Francis could change the rule, but evidently he has chosen not to do so. Instead he has chosen to break it.

After the November 28 conclave, barring a death, there will be 128 cardinals eligible to take part in a conclave: eight more than the maximum.

Pope Francis is not the first Pontiff to break through the fixed ceiling. St. John Paul II broke his own rule in 2001, when, he too drove the number of cardinal-electors up to 128.

That two Roman Pontiffs would ignore a rule, rather than amend it, is neither a crime nor a scandal. But it is an oddity. Why keep the rule on the books, when it would be so easy to rescind it?

This is, I readily admit, a quibble. The future welfare of the Church will not be endangered by the presence of a few extra seats in the Sistine Chapel. But I can’t help wondering whether it is wise for a Pope to flout the letter of the law. Would we be worse off if the Pope limited himself to the normative number of red hats?

We don’t yet know, of course, what sort of influence the cardinal-electors of the November consistory will bring to the next conclave. But we can look back to the consistory of 2001, and ask whether the universal Church would be in better or worse shape today, if Pope John Paul II had trimmed eight names off the long list of new cardinals created that year. Just imagine, for instance, if the sainted Pontiff had decided not to confer red hats on:

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

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: [email protected] - Oct. 28, 2020 1:02 AM ET USA

    Another interesting red hat is Gregory of DC. Believe his mentor was Mccarrick. All those mentored by Mccarrick should be looked at closely. Francis has too many "purple" bishops to his name that help the confusion he is spreading. St Michael protect us.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 27, 2020 7:02 PM ET USA

    We would be much better without those eight cardinals.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 26, 2020 8:05 PM ET USA

    None on the list of eight has demonstrated any appreciation for the papacy or teachings of St. John Paul, or fidelity to the entire Magisterium of the Church. It's pretty obvious that the current process of recommending and promoting prelates is susceptible to profound corruption. The McCarrick report, to be worth anything, must include the names of those who pulled the strings in his career, and also those whose strings he pulled.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Oct. 26, 2020 3:59 PM ET USA

    I’m reminded of the words of Captain Barbosa in “Pirates of the Caribbean”: “The Pirate Code is more like what you call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Similarly, by breaking rather than changing the law, Pope Francis (and alas, also Pope John Paul II) have brought us to the point at which we no longer have Canon Law, but Canon Guidelines.

  • Posted by: Cory - Oct. 26, 2020 11:09 AM ET USA

    2001. That's 4 years before his death. He was already very frail by then. Boggles the mind why he would make these men cardinals. I wonder if deception and a criminal act was involved.

  • Posted by: Cory - Oct. 26, 2020 11:06 AM ET USA

    So that was the dream. But we woke up to a nightmare.