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What next for the College of Cardinals?

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals

There’s been lots of chatter over the past few weeks about a consistory for the creation of new cardinals.

As of this writing, nothing has been announced – that could change by the time this edition hits the newsstands – though June seems to be the rough target and June 29 the most oft-floated date for the giving of new red hats.

Consistory talk comes with talk of papal electors, and talk of papal electors brings – either with it, or on its heels – talk of a papal election. Where do things stand in the College of Cardinals, and what might we expect over the coming months?

Strictly by the numbers, it seems a consistory is inevitable. By year’s end, the number of cardinal-electors worldwide will shrink to 114. That’s six below the maximum of 120 – not a legally binding cap – to which, in any case, no pope in 40 years has rigorously kept, and one for which there is little support. If there is one thing on which (almost) everyone agrees, it is that the College should be more representative of the worldwide Church, in both numerical and geographical terms.

Since Francis came into the See of Rome, he has paid lip service to the local profile of the papal office. At the same time, he has governed without the bureaucracy, sidestepping curial offices (and officers) while generally creating paralysis: not so much by saying one thing and doing the other, as by saying both things and doing whatever he feels like doing. Leaving aside questions of prudence with regard to any particular decision, the fact is that just such an attitude may be exactly what the circumstances have heretofore required.

Nevertheless, it is not sustainable as a model of governance. This will be on everyone’s mind as we come into both the implementation phase of the curial reform and, when the times comes, the search for Francis’s successor.

There’s no reason to beat around the bush: the College of Cardinals is in a pretty sad state. It isn’t just that there is no figure who seems to attract broad admiration from the faithful and the other cardinals, someone widely understood to have the necessary qualities to serve as Bishop of Rome. That has happened more often than not, or so it has seemed from the outside looking in. Recent history offers ample illustration: the Archbishop of Kraków was not exactly an international celebrity figure in October 1978; the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was perhaps better known to Catholics of the chattering classes, but then mostly as 2005’s runner-up.

This time around, the field is decidedly flat. More to the point, the members of the College are largely unknown, both to the public and to one another. Francis has made dozens of surprising choices for the red hat, only a few of them known quantities even in the upper echelons of ecclesiastical life and culture.

Their theological tastes, ecclesiological inclinations and even their pastoral “styles” are not well known, to say nothing of their politics.

If Francis remains true to form, and creates new cardinals from the peripheries – ie from places that are geographically far-flung by Roman reckoning, and/or largely outside major media markets – then the situation will become further fixed and arguably ineluctable.

The state of affairs is not on its own a problem. There are ways and means by which to develop acquaintance and build working relationships. One institutional tool for that is the ordinary consistory for the creation of cardinals itself, around which popes often call an extraordinary consistory to discuss matters touching the common weal of the Church.

Pope Francis has not held an extraordinary consistory since 2015. With the long-awaited reform of the Roman Curia now complete and slated for promulgation in the near future – June 29 being the Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul – an extraordinary consistory to discuss its contents and manage its roll-out is eminently reasonable. That is, or would be, only a first step.

The question is whether the unknowns – and they comprise most of the roughly 50 per cent of the College that Francis has created – will then become known to each other and to the high curial officials, who are often the brokers of elections even when they are not themselves stand-out candidates.

In any case, Vatican watchers and election handicappers always have their lists of papabili, but those are notoriously inaccurate. The Italians even have an expression: chi entra papa in conclave, ne esce cardinale, literally, “Who goes into the conclave a pope, comes out a cardinal”. If things keep up, it is very likely there will be no clear group of candidates heading into conclave about whom the pundits will even have the chance to be wrong.

Bottom line: expect some shocks at the next consistory announcement, and don’t be too surprised if the next conclave is considerably longer than the last few.