The news that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle had been raised to the rank of “cardinal-bishop” by Pope Francis was greeted almost everywhere as a sign of papal favour for a future conclave. Perhaps. But popes don’t get to choose their successors, as Benedict XVI discovered in 2013, when the signs of papal favour all pointed toward Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan.
The elevation is part of a longstanding attempt by the Church to deal with increasing longevity. What is to be done when prelates routinely live into their late 80s or even 90s? How to move elderly bishops off stage?
The first two major steps were taken by St Paul VI, both of them earthquakes at the time. He first introduced a retirement age in 1966; all bishops must submit a resignation letter upon turning 75. The pope can choose when to accept it, but after 75 a bishop can be retired at any time. When introduced it was greeted by vociferous opposition in some quarters, likened to ecclesial patricide or spiritual euthanasia. Now it is entirely uncontroversial.
In 1970, Paul VI put an age limit on cardinals. At 80 they can no longer serve on Roman congregations and lose their right to enter a conclave. The first conclave with the age limit took place in 1978 and there were 15 over-80 cardinals who were non-electors. By 2005, there were 66 cardinals too old to vote. By 2013, there were 90 non-electors. If a conclave were to take place now, there would be 101 cardinals over 80. The next conclave could very easily take place with more cardinals over-80 than under. With a limit of 120 electors in the conclave, without an age limit new cardinals would be very few indeed.
The next major earthquake was in February 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI abdicated at age 85 – voluntarily, without changing the law for his successor. Pope Francis has publicly mused about Benedict’s utter novelty becoming an institution, as was the case for retired bishops. If Pope Francis abdicates when he turns 85, it would move toward a de facto retirement age for popes.
But that is the future. The present problem is a very elderly college of cardinals, or at least its leadership. Hence the insertion of Cardinal Tagle, 62, into the mix.
The college of cardinals is divided into three categories or “orders”. Cardinal-bishops are usually the most senior cardinals in Rome; cardinal-priests are usually residential archbishops; and cardinal-deacons usually hold curial posts.
The cardinal-bishops are the highest rank in the college, and there are only six of them. Instead of being assigned titular churches in Rome like other cardinals, they are assigned titular dioceses around Rome (Urbs), hence they are called suburbicarian sees.
Why does it matter? The cardinal-bishops elect from their number the Dean and Vice-Dean of the college. The dean presides over the college during a papal vacancy and conducts the funeral when a pope dies. It is a position of great prominence during the interregnum; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Dean in 2005.
The cardinals also appear in public in strict order of precedence, meaning that the cardinal-bishops are the ones closest to the Holy Father when concelebrating Holy Mass and at other ceremonies.
(In 1978, the newly-elected John Paul II asked that the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, be placed second-in-line to greet him at the inaugural Mass of the pontificate. Vatican watchers immediately understood that the Polish pope was giving a special honour to his mentor and to the Polish Church.)
Last summer, the six cardinal-bishops were Angelo Sodano, then the dean at age 91; Giovanni Battista Re, the vice-dean, 85; Roger Etchegaray, 96; Francis Arinze, 86; Tarcisio Bertone, 84; José Saraiva Martins, 87. At an average age of over 88, they were increasingly distant from the affairs of the Church in which they were ostensibly senior advisors to the Roman Pontiff.
In 2018, Pope Francis, faced with a very elderly bench of cardinal-bishops, decided to add rather than subtract. Instead of asking the cardinal-bishops to retire from that rank at a certain age, he granted four curial cardinals the equivalent rank of cardinal-bishop.
He chose to elevate four of the senior curial cardinals without granting them titular dioceses: Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State; Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops; and Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
In 2019, Cardinal Filoni was replaced by Cardinal Tagle. Tagle has now been given the same rank Filoni enjoyed. At the same time as Tagle’s elevation, Pope Francis elevated Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, to take the place of Cardinal Etchegaray, who died last September.
The Church will always be governed by older men: most bishops are ordained at an age when many laymen are already retired. With life expectancy increasing, the challenge for the Church is to ensure that governance is not dominated by the very elderly. The modifications of Pope Francis to the order of cardinal-bishops are best seen in that light.