Who Will Be the Next Pope?

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Charles Keenan is a PhD student at Northwestern University. His M.A. thesis was entitled "The Right to Reform: Popes, Councils, and Cardinals in the Early Sixteenth Century."

Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI named twenty-two new cardinals, who will be formally appointed—“created,” in Catholic parlance—during a consistory next month.  The cardinal’s hat is one of the highest honors that can be given in the Catholic Church, and although the office has become largely honorific over the centuries, the College of Cardinals remains the sole elector of popes when it meet in conclave.

Benedict XVI’s nominations stand out because of the types of clerics he has elevated to the cardinalate, and the geographic distribution of these men.

By way of background:  the origins of the cardinalate itself are still somewhat murky; the term itself derives from the Latin cardinis, or “hinge,” referring to how these men were attached (“incardinated”) to particular churches.  The first cardinals were simply the clergy of parishes in the city of Rome, and therefore served in the diocese of Rome under the pope.

They were taken to have a close relationship with the pontiff, and during the Middle Ages this relationship became more formalized.  Medieval thinkers thought that the pope ought to consult the College of Cardinals regularly, and that he ought to act with their “advice and consent” on important matters of governance.  More importantly, Pope Nicholas II declared in 1059 that the right of electing popes fell to the college alone.  The Sacred College became a uniquely international assembly in pre-modern Europe, with cardinals, frequently the sons of noble families, arriving from all over Europe.

From the sixteenth century onward, however, the Sacred College of Cardinals became almost exclusively a preserve for Western Europeans, and especially Italians.  In its twenty-fourth session, the Council of Trent (1545-63) instructed the pope to draw cardinals from all the nations of Christendom, yet this advice went largely unheeded.  From the sixteenth until the twentieth century, over 90 percent of cardinals were Italian, French, or Spanish, with some Germans occasionally thrown into the mix.  Of these, Italians were the clear majority.  (Given that future popes have almost always been drawn from the ranks of the Sacred College, this helps explain why there were only Italian popes elected between 1523 and 1978.)  The first American and Canadian cardinals were not created until 1886.  Thus, for nearly four hundred years, the College of Cardinals remained a distinctly European institution.  Ninety-three percent of the cardinals created by the first three popes of the twentieth century, for instance, still hailed from Western Europe.

The twentieth century witnessed important changes in this regard, and popes began to select cardinals from nations all over the world.  Pius XII (r. 1939-58) created fifty-six cardinals during his pontificate, selecting men from twenty-four countries and six continents.  Africa, Australia, and Latin America all received cardinals for the first time.  The globalization of the Sacred College continued under Pius’s successors, with only 71 percent of John XXIII’s creations going to Europe, and 57 percent of Paul VI’s creations.  Despite this greater geographic diversity, Italians continued to be elected pope through October 1978, when Polish John Paul II was elected.

John Paul II’s long reign allowed him to create 231 cardinals, more than any other previous pope.  John Paul firmly believed that the composition of the Sacred College should reflect the global nature of the Catholic Church in the modern age, and so even more hats were given to the non-Western world.  Not counting the men who worked in the Roman Curia, only 30 percent of John Paul II’s cardinals hats were given to European bishops.  Thus, at the time of Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, the percentage of Italians in the college, which had been fairly consistent during the first half of the twentieth century, constituting around 50 percent of the college, fell to 17 percent by 2005.

With the latest group, Benedict has named sixty-two cardinals and will have created half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the next conclave.  From these nominations we can discern certain tendencies that diverge from the trends of other twentieth-century popes noted above.  First, geographically:  where Italians had been steadily losing ground over the twentieth century, Benedict’s creations have meant that a quarter of the college are now Italians, the largest group of any nation and the largest percentage of Italians in the college over the last half-century.  Compared to John Paul II, a slighly larger percentage of Benedict’s creations have been to Africa and Asia, while North America, Latin America, and Western Europe outside of Italy have all received fewer hats.

Second, honorary cardinals.  Under changes instituted by Paul VI, cardinals over the age of eighty cannot vote in conclaves (though they can attend and participate in its discussions).  One development begun under John Paul II was to elevate men to the cardinalate who were already over the age of 80—in effect, to bestow the cardinal’s hat as an honor on them.  These men have almost always been theologians or other scholars who have had a lifetime of important work.  For example, John Paul gave hats to such theologians as Henri de Lubac and Avery Dulles.  Benedict has been much more active in using the cardinalate in this way; eight of his sixty-two creations (13 percent) have been such men.  This, along with the more simplified ceremony that will be used for the first time in February, suggests that the pope is taking actions to reinforce the largely honorific character of the Sacred College.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Benedict XVI has favored curialists—those who work in the Roman Curia, at the Vatican—over residential bishops, who serve in their respective dioceses.  Fully one third of the electors in the next conclave will be these men who work, or have worked, in the Vatican.  John Paul II’s inclination had been to promote far more numbers of residential bishops than curialists.  This newest group of cardinals demonstrates Benedict’s own preferences: ten of the twenty-two hold offices in the curia.

What does all this mean for the next conclave?  Given the numbers and composition of the Sacred College, we could posit that the next pope would likely be a European, and potentially a curialist.  But conclaves are unpredictable.  Though there are new trends we can see in Benedict’s creations, these statistics could be meaningless the next time the cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel.  Only time will tell.

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