What the new cardinals tell us about the future

Michael Kelly assesses the Pope’s recent ‘red hat’ choices

Unsurprisingly, Ireland didn’t get a new cardinal when Pope Francis announced the latest clerics to be preferred at the weekend. Nor did the Pope appoint a female cardinal, despite confident predictions from people who should know better that two middle class Irishwomen were poised to be appointed to the College of Cardinals. Ireland is unlikely to get a new red hat until Cardinal Seán Brady turns 80 in 2019.

Pope Francis’ first biglietto of new cardinals represents a long-term vision for change rather than a dramatic seismic shift. There is a decisive geographical shift towards Latin America, Africa and Asia, but, the Pope has also shown himself to be a respecter of convention and tradition by appointing four senior members of the Roman Curia to the College of Cardinals.

Announced by the Pope in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three cardinals over the age of 80 were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla.

John Paul II

The appointment of Archbishop Capovilla sets the stage beautifully for the canonisation of his mentor later this year along with Blessed Pope John Paul II. The appointment also signals a kind-of canonisation of John XXIII’s vision of Church reform as articulated at Vatican II. April’s double canonisation ceremony will be an opportunity for Pope Francis to articulate his own vision of Vatican II undoubtedly trying to steer a via media between the two extremes that, on the one hand, would like to set Vatican II aside and, on the other hand, would try to use a mythical ‘spirit’ of Vatican II to abandon the parts of Catholicism that they find difficult.

Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia, places where the Church is growing rapidly. Francis continued the tradition of appointing senior Vatican personnel with four members of the Roman Curia getting a red hat. In all, six of the 16 new cardinal-electors come from Europe ensuring that the balance towards the developing world will be gradual (Pope Francis will have the chance to appoint approximately 40 more new cardinals in the next five years).


As expected, the Pope’s new Secretary of State Pietro Parolin was made a cardinal. As was the Pope Benedict-appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Gerhard Müller. Much to the chagrin of commentators who want Pope Francis to emasculate the CDF, the Argentine Pontiff confirmed Dr Müller as head of CDF and his appointment as a cardinal is further confirmation of endorsement from Francis. Dr Müller has been criticised by German prelates over his stance on the non-admittance of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion after Francis signalled that change may be on the way. That potential change not seems unlikely. It’s not really plausible that the Pope would be at odds with his chief doctrinal adviser who he has just appointed as a cardinal.

Greater role

Interestingly, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, will also become a cardinal. This may well be a signal that the Pope foresees a greater role for the body that has struggled for relevance since it was established by Pope Paul VI. This year’s synod on the family will be a key test on whether or not the body is fit for purpose.

Pope Francis has reminded the cardinals that one of their most important duties will be to choose his successor. In selecting future cardinals in coming years he will, like his predecessors, play an important role in shaping the thinking of the body that will one day meet to replace him.