New Cardinals reflect a changing church
Western People, 7.6.2022
In church circles, an old adage is: If you want to know what a pope really
thinks, then keep a close eye on his appointment of cardinals. We have seen
that very clearly in appointments of cardinals during the pontificates of Popes
John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We can see it too in the latest list of cardinals
chosen by Pope Francis. When the red hats are distributed, we get a clear
view of the mind-set of the serving pope.
Last week, 21 new cardinals were announced, 16 who can vote in a papal
election, and 5 other ‘honorary’ cardinals and the track of Francis’ hand can
be seen in them.
Take, for example, the state of California. Its two biggest dioceses are Los
Angeles and San Francisco with archbishops who, if Benedict was still pope,
would no doubt already be wearing their red soutanes. Both Archbishop José
Gomes of L.A., the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, are heavy hitters in
church terms. Yet, in the recent appointments, both were overlooked for
promotion and Bishop Robert McElroy, from the comparatively minor diocese
of San Diego, was named cardinal.
To understand what that means, let’s imagine a similar appointment in
Ireland. If the expectation was that Ireland was due a cardinal, the
presumption would be that Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, in deference
to that diocese’s historic position, would be the favourite and Archbishop
Dermot Farrell of Dublin, in deference to the size and importance of that
diocese, would be a close second. Imagine the surprise if both Armagh and
Dublin were ignored and the red hat landed on the head of the bishop of
But, in this instance, Francis wasn’t just sending a signal that it’s the man
rather than the diocese that’s important or even that every diocese is
important in its own right. After all, among his recent appointments were
archbishops in Mongolia (where they have a grand total of 1,400 Catholics)
and East Timor.
He was also, in appointing McElroy a cardinal, sending some very clear
signals to the Catholic Church in America, to its putative leader, Gomes, and to Cordileone, who recently announced that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, should not be allowed to receive Communion, because she accepts the policy of the Democratic Party, on
abortion rights. (Cordileone, it has been pointed out, seems to have no
reservation about giving Communion to public figures who support the death
penalty, another pro-life issue that is against Catholic teaching).
The fact that McElroy is on record as criticising the policy of (what he calls)
‘weaponising Communion’ in the abortion wars in America, underlines
Francis’ unhappiness with some, indeed many American bishops.
The clear message from Francis is that American bishops have no right to
block anyone from Communion on the grounds that they were ‘not pro-life
that the reforming vision of the Second Vatican Councils is now back on track;
that the parameters of that reform are becoming established; and that
significant change – including adopting a synodal pathway as the future way
of the church – in significant areas is to be expected.
How far or how quickly these reforms will extend, will depend to a large
degree on two things: one, how long Francis will be pope and who his
successor will be.
One theory, beloved of those who pine for the more settled days of his two
immediate predecessors, is that Francis is packing the house of cardinals with
like-minded churchmen who will vote for another Francis figure to succeed
This wheeze doesn’t allow either for the fact that such has always been the
case from time immemorial (as we say) but that God’s Spirit has a way of
disrupting the best laid plans of mice and churchmen. Who, after all, would
have placed even a small wager on John XXIII in 1958 or Francis I in 2013?
In his recent appointments, Francis is very obviously spreading the leadership
of the Catholic Church around the world, as distinct from centring it on Rome,
Europe and the United States. There were never fewer Italian cardinals than
there are now and the same policy is diminishing the number of cardinals in
the US. And, of course, Africa and the East are notoriously under-represented
in the governance of the Catholic Church. So Francis, in establishing in less
than a decade a policy that no diocese or country has a right to a cardinal, is
bringing in from the peripheries many who have felt ignored and marginalised.
This will probably mean, for example, that for countries like Ireland who
heretofore presumed a sense almost of entitlement to a seat at the cardinals’
table, the prospect is that there will be no appointment of an Irish cardinal in
the foreseeable future. And if there is, it probably won’t be Armagh or Dublin –
though retired Bishop Willie Walsh might be worth a small flutter.
In many ways this will be a blessing for other dioceses. The traditional
leadership of dioceses like Armagh and Dublin – where the cardinal’s hat was
passed between them for nearly two centuries – is really a pious fiction. While
we have designated (since 1353!) the archbishop of Armagh as the primate of
All-Ireland and the archbishop of Dublin as the Primate of Ireland, the truth is
that these titles have no real meaning as neither has any effective jurisdiction
over any diocese in Ireland.
Whether Ireland has or hasn’t a cardinal voting in the next conclave matters