The Conversation: New cardinals promise to alter course of Catholicism


On Sept. 30, Pope Francis swore in 21 clergy to the College of Cardinals at an assembly known as a consistory. It is the ninth consistory ceremony Francis has held to swear in new cardinals since succeeding Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

Through his appointments over the years, Francis has ensured the college includes clergy from around the world, making it much more representative of the diversity within Catholicism. The latest round swells membership from 221 to 242, a majority of whom were elevated by Francis.

As a specialist in medieval Christianity, I have studied the complex history of the College of Cardinals. Shaped by past challenges, it has become a crucial institution, for its members will elect the next pope and help develop the policies carrying the church into the future.

During the Roman Empire, when Christianity was illegal, Christians would meet secretly. These meetings were often held in private homes called house churches — domestic buildings that were later adapted solely for worship by members of the local Christian community.

It was during this time that leadership of these communities developed into three main orders of ordained clergy. Ministers became deacons, elders became priests and overseers became bishops.

With legalization in the early fourth century, Christians were freed to build larger and more elaborate public buildings for worship, often expanded from some of the original house churches. New churches were also built in various sections of Rome, as well as in seven areas surrounding the city, where they were known as the suburbicarian churches.

By the sixth century, key members of the clergy staffing many of these churches, especially the older ones, began to be referred to as cardinals.

Leading deacons, senior priests and prominent bishops serving these parishes all came to be called cardinals. The term comes from the Latin word for a hinge or joint.

Over later centuries, Christianity spread more widely north of the Alps, and the numbers of Christian churches and clergy expanded. However, because of ongoing warfare, conquest and political turmoil, Christianity in western Europe entered a more turbulent period.

Popes came to exert political as well as spiritual power, leaving the office of the papacy vulnerable to the influence of competing secular powers, as well as powerful local Roman families and foreign rulers.

This became such a problem that in 769, under Pope Stephen III, a council held at one of the central churches in Rome — St. John Lateran — ruled that no layperson could be elected pope or influence the election of anyone to the papacy. Only candidates holding the title of cardinal could be elected pope.

This requirement improved the situation for a time, but also contributed to the increasing political power of cardinals, traditionally the popes’ closest advisers.

In the later ninth and 10th centuries, the papacy again became a political prize for prominent Roman families and Italian nobility. This period, called the “nadir of the papacy,” produced a series of unworthy popes, including Pope Stephen VI, who put the corpse of his predecessor on trial, and Pope John XII, the youngest pope ever at the age of 17, who spent his mid-10th century papacy engaging in drinking, gambling and debauchery.

However, many changes took place during the next two centuries, supported by reform-minded clergy and rulers in what is now France.

Several popes, notably Popes Leo IX and Gregory VII, brought organizational improvements to the bureaucratic structure of the church in the 11th and early 12th centuries. In the process, many cardinals came to direct administrative departments.

In 1059, Pope Nicholas II declared that a pope could only be elected by members of the College of Cardinals, and a special election consistory was mandated in 1179.

In the following centuries, cardinals in the Catholic Church continued to assume important roles in Rome as curial officers, diplomats and arbiters of canon law. Others served as advisers to rulers in Catholic countries or directed groups of bishops in their local pastoral ministry.

Several popes made more substantial changes in the number and selection of cardinals in the 20th and 21st centuries. The requirements for a cardinal candidate were narrowed along the way.

In 1917, Pope Benedict XV promulgated a universal Code of Canon Law. In it, the office of cardinal was restricted to priests and bishops, excluding deacons.

Later, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965, Pope John XXIII declared all cardinals must be ordained bishops.

Subsequently, John Paul II — pope from 1978 until his death in 2005 — dispensed certain exceptional priests, often elderly theologians, from this requirement. The first so honored in 1983 was the French theologian Rev. Henri de Lubac in 1983, and the first American the Rev. Avery Dulles in 2001.

In addition, popes at this time, stressing the universality of the church, added new cardinals from countries around the world. Partly because of this stress on diversity, the size of the College of Cardinals increased dramatically in the process.

During the later medieval period, popes and councils set the maximum number of cardinals, varying from 20 in the 14th century to 70 in the 16th century. That limit remained in effect until the 20th century, when John XXIII expanded the College to 88 cardinals and Paul VI to 134 – still less than half the size of the college today.

The duties expected of individual cardinals have also changed.

During his papacy, Paul VI set out rules for the retirement of all bishops and priests, as well as cardinals. All were expected to submit a letter of intent to retire when they reached 75.

After reaching the age of 80, he decreed, cardinals would not be eligible to vote in papal elections, even though they would retain the title of cardinal the remainder of their lives. Even before the September 2023 consistory, almost half of the total number of cardinals were over 80, thus barred from voting in future papal elections.

During his pontificate, Francis’ selections have continued to shape the composition of the College of Cardinals in several ways.

Many believe that with his appointments, Francis, who is 86 and in failing health, has tried to ensure that his vision of the church’s future will continue after his death.

The vast majority of cardinals under 80 are Francis’ appointees at this point, leading commentators to suggest he has “stacked” the college with cardinals inclined to agree with his more liberal focus on inclusivity and social justice, rather than Benedict XVI’s on doctrinal orthodoxy and traditional values. And Francis’ latest round of appointments has done nothing to dispel this notion.

Some more conservative Catholic bishops and cardinals have criticized the pope’s statements and actions as divergent from traditional teaching. The late Cardinal George Pell from Australia, who served over a year in prison until his conviction for child sex abuse was overturned in 2020, called Francis’ pontificate a “catastrophe” in a letter he sent anonymously to fellow cardinals in 2022.

Other bishops and cardinals disagree. For example, Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, has publicly approved of the pope’s determination to “situate the church for its future” by emphasizing a more collaborative approach, and praised his stress on inclusion rather than division.

Whatever the outcome of the next papal election, members of the College of Cardinals, as bishops, diplomats, intellectuals and papal advisers, will have a profound role in shaping that future.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


Web Design and Web Development by Buildable