An apostolic letter which tweaked the role of the dean of the College of Cardinals was one of two moves at the end of 2019 which made it clear to Vatican watchers that Francis is thinking seriously about the papal succession.
The other was the Pope’s decision to bring Cardinal Tagle from Manila to Rome, to lead at the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (see pages 16-17).
The reason that changes to the dean’s role made observers think of the succession was that the dean’s official power is principally exercised during a papal transition, especially by his presiding over the general congregations – daily meetings of the cardinals during a papal vacancy – and setting the date on which the conclave begins.
Dated November 29, 2019 and presented to the public on December 21 – just a few days before Christmas, and coinciding with the customary seasonal exchange of greetings with the College of Cardinals – the apostolic letter introduced term limits to the dean’s office. No longer appointed for life, the dean will now serve a five-year term, “renewable if necessary”. Whoever the new dean is, he will have a major role in shaping not only the conclave but also the conversations that precede it. He will also be the public face of the College during the interregnum.
The cardinals eligible for the office are those who hold suburbicarian titles – the ancient suffragan dioceses around Rome – which are: Ostia (which goes to the dean, in addition to his existing title), Velletri-Segni (Cardinal Francis Arinze), Porto-Santa Rufina (vacant, + Cardinal Roger Etchegaray 2019), Frascati (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone), Palestrina (Cardinal José Saraiva Martins), Albano (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), and Sabina-Poggio Mirteto (Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re).
In addition, Pope Francis broadened the field in 2018 to include Cardinals Pietro Parolin, Leonardo Sandri, Marc Ouellet and Fernando Filoni, all of whom are active in the Curia and eligible to vote in conclave until they turn 80. The five cardinal-bishops with suburbicarian sees are all well over 80 and will not vote in the next papal election.
The cardinal bishops who are patriarchs of Eastern Churches – Antonios Naguib of Alexandria of the Copts (84, emeritus), Bechara Boutros al-Rahi of Antioch of the Maronites (80 in February), and Louis Raphaël I Sako of Babylon of the Chaldeans (71) – might be theoretically eligible for the office. Even if they are, it is nevertheless highly unlikely that one of their number will be elected. The dean’s office is both traditionally and practically tied to Rome.
The dean is primus inter pares – “first among equals”. As long as there is a pope, his unofficial duties include generally serving as a sort of cardinalatial concierge. The job – officially and unofficially – requires deep knowledge and long experience of the Roman scene. Those eligible to vote in the election of a new dean, in fact, are the suburbicarians and the four curial cardinals Pope Francis added to the list in 2018.
Part and parcel of the change was the resignation of the long-serving dean, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. At 92, Cardinal Sodano had been dean since 2005, and had already served through a papal succession – the one that elected Francis – though neither he nor vice-dean Cardinal Etchegaray voted in the conclave, as both were over the age of 80.
Cardinal Sodano is a controversial figure who was something of an éminence grise to John Paul II during his long tenure as the sainted pope’s secretary of state. The cardinal had close connections to the notorious Fr Marcial Maciel, who founded the Legion of Christ and used the order as a front to support his real purpose in life, which appears to have been the unrestrained indulgence of criminal perversion. Cardinal Sodano is alleged to have been one of the high officials who for years stymied efforts to investigate both Maciel and the Legion. (The cardinal has not responded publicly to the allegation.)
On the same day that Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Sodano’s resignation and announced the changes to the dean’s term of office, the Legion of Christ published an internal report which found that 33 priests and 71 seminarians of the order had abused 175 victims over 80 years. Some 60 of these were members of the order, upon whom Maciel himself had preyed; and many themselves went on to abuse others in what the Associated Press described as “a multi-generational chain of abuse that confirms Maciel’s toxic influence spread throughout the order”.
Cardinal Sodano’s part in the mismanagement of the disgraced former cardinal archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, has also been the subject of scrutiny and speculation. The highly anticipated report on McCarrick could shed some light on the role the cardinal played in those affairs, but perhaps not as much as one might think or desire.
In accepting Cardinal Sodano’s resignation, Pope Francis thanked him for his many decades of service, which included more than a decade (1977-1988) as nuncio to Chile during the rule of Augusto Pinochet, three years as secretary for relations with states (roughly the foreign minister), and nearly 15 years as the Holy See’s secretary of state (1991-2006). Francis also expressed the hope that the electors will choose as the next dean of the College of Cardinal “someone who can carry this important responsibility full time”. Precisely what that means remains to be seen.