PAUL COLLINS. Ten new papal electors

Sep 5, 2019

Last Sunday Pope Francis unexpectedly announced that on October 5 he would appoint thirteen new members to the college of cardinals from thirteen different countries, a truly international group. Ten of the new appointments are under the age of 80 and can therefore vote in a papal election. Significantly there were no Americans, and only one from Italy. The Pope clearly intended the group to be international, continuing his policy of appointing papal electors from as broad a cross section of countries and local churches as possible.

As it now stands, 42% of cardinal electors are from Europe (of these 20% are Italian), 18% are Latin American, 13% African, 12.5% Asian, 10% North American and 3% from Oceania–one each from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Australia’s George Pell, who technically doesn’t lose his vote until June 2020, but is extremely unlikely to vote in any future papal election.

The recent appointments to the College are one each from Indonesia, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luxembourg, Guatemala, Italy and Morocco. The three over-eighty, non-voting cardinals are from Lithuania, Angola and English-born Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald. Three of the newly appointed voting cardinals are members of the Roman Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy), one each from Canada, Spain and Portugal. Significantly now only 26% of cardinal electors are from the Curia. When Francis was elected in 2013, 35% of cardinal electors were curial members.

It is particularly pleasing to see the appointment of the 83-year-old Fitzgerald, a recognized world authority on Islam. He had headed-up the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue under John Paul II, but fell out of favour with Benedict XVI when this pope strongly re-emphasized the uniqueness of Christianity and made it clear he didn’t approve of Fitzgerald’s openness to Islam. Benedict demoted him to nuncio to Egypt. It was a particularly ill-advised move, especially after Benedict spoke disparagingly of Islam in a lecture at Regensburg University, Germany, leading to riots across the Muslim world and a number of deaths. If he’d still been in the Vatican, Fitzgerald would have probably saved Benedict from this stupid mistake. Now retired, Fitzgerald works part-time in a Liverpool parish.

Francis is clearly trying to build bridges with Islam which he has re-enforced by his appointment of the present President of the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and another expert on Islam, the Spanish Bishop Miguel Ayuso Guixot, to the College of Cardinals. This is also highlighted by the appointment of Archbishop Cristobal Lopez Romero of Rabat, Morocco, also a strong proponent of dialogue with Islam.

As a Latin American, it is unsurprising that Francis would be suspicious of gringos, particularly of the US variety. This is re-enforced by the disloyalty of a number of culture warriors among the US bishops, particularly following a toxic and untruthful public letter in August 2018 from the former nuncio to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accusing Francis of covering-up sexual abuse and favouring an unspecified ‘gay lobby’. Clearly a group of US bishops hoped the Viganò letter might force Francis to resign from the papacy.

But he’s made of sterner stuff, and a number of mainstream US Catholic commentators like Michael Sean Winters, are now openly saying that some of the US bishops are essentially in a state of de facto schism. At the same time, some of the hyper-orthodox US websites, such as, are doing everything they can to blackball and undermine Francis and are tacitly supported by a number of anti-Francis US bishops.

Since his election in 2013 Francis has appointed three Americans to the College, but he has bypassed a number of prominent bishops, such as Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, numerically one of the largest archdioceses in the world. A Hispanic and a strong supporter of immigrant rights, it is surprizing Gomez has been over-looked. However, he is a member of Opus Dei, a movement Francis has not favoured. Another bypassed archbishop is Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. The reason is probably because Chaput, a leading US opponent of Francis’ pastoral priorities, is an unapologetic reactionary culture warrior and also because he has only one year to go before he has to offer his resignation as Archbishop of Philadelphia.

All of those recently appointed cardinals fit the model of church favoured by Francis. Most are from the peripheries, bishops, as the pope says, with ‘the smell of the sheep’ about them. They are pastoral, care for the poor, the marginalized and immigrants. Their priorities, like those of Francis, are focused on people rather than ideology. Their average age is 66. Almost as a policy, the pope has largely ignored important urban dioceses that have traditionally had a cardinal archbishop, like Milan, Venice, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and at least since the 1950s, Sydney.

An example of the kind of bishop Francis wants is Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, known in Italy as ‘the bishop of the poor.’ Another is Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of Huehuetenango, Guatemala. He has a track record of defending Guatemala’s indigenous people and strongly opposing international mining conglomerates that are destroying the environment, leading him to both international fame and death threats.

The general rule is that there are 120 voting cardinals, but this is often more honoured in the breach than the observance; at one stage John Paul II had 135 voting cardinals. With four present cardinals soon reaching the age of eighty, by the end of October 2019 there will be 124 voting cardinals.

What Francis has achieved with his latest batch of cardinal appointments is a consolidation of his vision for the church. He is making sure there won’t be a radical turn-around in Catholicism when he departs, either by resignation or death.

Paul Collins has written extensively on the papacy, his latest book being Absolute Power (2018).

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