A new crop of princes in the Church

A new crop of princes in the Church
Letter from Rome


Pope Francis named thirteen new cardinals on Sunday past, including 10 eligible to vote for the next pope. Arguably, nothing any Pope ever does is more consequential than appointing cardinals. Not only do they immediately become the most influential leaders in the Church, but someday they’ll also elect a new Pope – and, it should be added, the odds are extremely good the new Pope will be one of them.

As a result, it’s always worth sifting through a Pope’s picks to try to determine what can be made of them.

Americans? What Americans?

This will be Pope Francis’s third consistory in a row in which no new American cardinal has been named. Actually it’s his sixth consistory in total, and in only one did he name any Americans, although in that 2016 edition he tapped three at once – Kevin Farrell of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, Blase Cupich of Chicago, and Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis (shortly thereafter moved to Newark).

The obvious candidate for the American left waiting at the altar again this time is Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, one of the largest archdioceses in the world and one that’s been led by a cardinal since 1953.

Francis has always felt a degree of ambivalence about the US, and just doesn’t feel bound to do what Americans expect”

It was once thought that Francis was refraining from naming Gomez until his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, turned 80, but this will be the fourth consistory since that happened. It’s also often said that Francis prefers to name cardinals from the peripheries rather than established centres of power, but that’s obviously not an absolute – otherwise, how does one explain the presence of Matteo Zuppi of Bologna in this consistory, especially given that Italy already has considerably more cardinals than the US?

Given Gomez’s strong advocacy of immigrant rights and his potential profile as the first Hispanic cardinal in the United States, it may seem all the more inexplicable that history’s most pro-immigrant Pope, and its first from Latin America, hasn’t pulled the trigger.

Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that Gomez, a member of Opus Dei, is generally seen as a doctrinal conservative and thus not exactly Francis’s cup of tea. Perhaps Gomez also suffers from the fact that Francis has always felt a degree of ambivalence about the US, and just doesn’t feel bound to do what Americans expect. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Gomez is associated with the US bishops’ maladroit handling of a draft set of norms on bishops’ accountability in 2018, in which they were perceived as trying to paint the Pope into a corner.

What are friends For?

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the 2019 consistory probably is that Francis is a Pope who knows how to take care of his friends, since several of the new red hats are going to key aides and allies.

Archbishop José Tolentino Mendonça, for instance, is a Portuguese theologian and poet who’s made a career out of engaging secular thought and who, prior to his nomination by Francis as the Vatican archivist and librarian in 2018, rarely was seen wearing clerical clothes, exuding a spirit of simplicity akin to the Pontiff himself.

Archbishop Jean-Claude Höllerich of Luxembourg, a member of the Pope’s Jesuit order, is considered a strong progressive and reliable Francis supporter among the European bishops. Among other things, he’s taken strong positions in favour of lay empowerment and penned a memorable article in the Jesuit-edited journal Civiltà Cattolica opposing populist nationalism.

Zuppi of Bologna is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Pope’s favourite among the new movements in the Catholic Church, and a strong advocate for immigrants and the poor. Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, meanwhile, has been the Pope’s right-hand man on migrant and refugee issues from his perch at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

One could go on, but the point should be clear: this is a consistory in which Francis is elevating a cohort of like-minded churchmen, positioning them to help advance his agenda right now and also to help ensure that the next Pope, whoever it may be, isn’t someone inclined to roll back the clock.

It’s always worth sifting through a Pope’s picks to try to determine what can be made of them”

In other words, Francis will come out of this consistory in a stronger position to lead – and whether that’s good news or bad, naturally, will depend on whether a given Catholic happens to like the direction he’s heading.

Rejoice for the religious

Five of the 10 new voting-age cardinals named by Francis on Sunday belong to religious orders: two Jesuits, a Comboni missionary, a Capuchin and a Salesian. Two of the three “honorary” cardinals are also religious, including another Jesuit and a member of the Poor Servants of Divine Providence.

In part, the selections reflect the missionary emphasis of this Pope, since the religious orders have long been the primary missionary arm of the Church, especially in parts of the world traditionally considered the peripheries.

In another sense, however, it’s also part of a strategic choice of this papacy to reemphasise the established and traditional orders of the Church, as opposed to the “new movements” perceived to enjoy greater favour under John Paul and Benedict.

A member of a religious order himself, Francis has made healing the relationship between the Vatican and the orders a priority since his election, and this consistory is a logical extension of that agenda.

Holy rehabilitation

Finally, the nomination of British Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as one of three “honorary” cardinals over 80 will speak volumes to long-time Vatican watchers, since he joins a burgeoning set of figures that already includes German Cardinal Walter Kasper, for instance, and Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, whose careers seemed to be stalled in the John Paul II/Benedict XVI years and who’ve been rehabilitated under Francis.

A member of the Missionaries of Africa, commonly known as the ‘White Fathers’ for the colour of their habits, Fitzgerald was more or less the Vatican’s go-to guy on Islam for the better part of two decades, having served as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 1987 to 2002 and then as president from 2002 to 2006.

Fitzgerald is the real deal as an Islamist. He studied in Tunisia as a young man, learning Arabic, and later worked on a degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He also served as a professor in Uganda, teaching Islam to Muslim as well as Christian students, and at the Vatican’s own Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. In addition, he put in a spell as a parish priest in Sudan.

A mild-mannered and accessible personality, Fitzgerald was popular on the Roman scene. Yet post-9/11, his irenic approach to Islam started to seem out of step with some Catholics who wanted a more muscular approach. When Pope Benedict XVI removed him from the Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2006, before his normal five-year term would have been completed, and dispatched him to Egypt as his ambassador, many took the move as a sort of exile.

However Benedict actually understood the decision – and, to be clear, it’s hardly as if being the Vatican envoy in Egypt is an inconsequential gig – many thought it meant Fitzgerald’s run as a significant figure in the Church was over.

Flash forward 13 years, and now Fitzgerald is poised to become a Prince of the Church. Perhaps the lesson here is that just as no victory in Catholicism is probably ever final or complete, the same thing could be said of any defeat.

Wait long enough, whether you’re up or down right now, and the wheels may turn for you too.

John L. Allen Jr is Editor of Cruxnow.com