ROME — Pope Francis yesterday created 20 new cardinals, including 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. This was Francis’ eighth consistory, and each time we have a new crop of Princes of the Church, several chronic misconceptions tend to head into the breach once more.
Attached are three conceptual mistakes to avoid when thinking about men who wear red.
It’s not about liberals versus conservatives
For starters, there is a natural tendency among Western disabled people to try to divide cardinals as they do for everyone else, that is, according to where the cardinals stand on the liberal/conservative divide.
This generally works quite well for Americans and Europeans – it is not wrong, for example, even if it is a bit reductive, to think that the new cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego is to the left of the traditional center of gravity within the American Episcopal Conference. , or that the new Cardinal Arthur Roche of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship is more progressive than his predecessor, Cardinal Robert Sarah.
However, the left/right taxonomy tends to break down once you leave western airspace. Do you want to try, for example, to locate the new Cardinal Anthony Poola, India’s first Dalit Cardinal, on this spectrum? What about Cardinal Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of East Timor?
It’s not just that we don’t know which side these guys are on, it’s that the left/right classification system often just doesn’t apply. Prelates in the developing world can often be quite traditional on doctrine, for example, but extremely progressive on issues of social justice.
Moreover, their perspectives are mainly influenced by their local situations. Presumably, Nigeria’s new Cardinal Peter Okpaleke is far more concerned with corruption, sectarian violence and security, the issues dominating his country at the moment, than transgender rights or the legal status of abortion, which define the left/right fault lines in America.
The bottom line is that Catholicism is a worldwide faith, a fact increasingly reflected in the College of Cardinals during the time of Pope Francis. Therefore, we must stop trying to analyze it in predominantly Western terms.
They are not Vatican experts
There is also a natural tendency among outsiders to assume that if someone is a cardinal they must know the ins and outs of the Vatican. This is simply not the case – in fact, most of these cardinals would be the first to admit that the corridors of power in Rome are just as unknown land like the tundra of the Arctic or the remote islands of the Pacific.
I would bet, for example, that of the 16 new cardinal electors named yesterday, only two of them could probably name more than, say, three of the 10 defendants currently on trial in the Vatican for alleged financial crimes.
I suppose most could correctly identify Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, especially since he is on the guest list for the Cardinals’ meeting thanks to Pope Francis despite having his privileges removed in 2020. But after that, I guess none could pick Raffaele Mincione or Gianluigi Torzi from a list, the two secular Italian financiers accused of defrauding the Vatican, with the possible exception of Roche and Cardinal Fernando Vérgez, who both work in the Vatican.
Based on 25 years of experience interviewing cardinals, I can testify that the usual dynamic is that we spend some time on the file with me asking the questions, and then another few minutes with the recorder off while we ‘they ask about what the heck is going on in Rome. Anyone covering the Vatican has likely had similar experiences.
This long-standing reality today is compounded by the fact that Pope Francis has appointed so many cardinals from the peripheries of the world who not only do not work in the Vatican, but who have spent very little time in Rome over the years. Half the time, the waiter serving them dinner in a romaine trattoria could probably speak more knowledgeably about Vatican power games than themselves.
Of course, if you’re a grassroots Catholic concerned about the Vatican, there’s nothing wrong with expressing that to your cardinal — they are, after all, supposed to be the pope’s closest advisers. Don’t necessarily expect him to know more about what’s really going on than you do.
They are not best friends
Speaking of natural but mistaken assumptions about cardinals, there’s also a tendency to assume that because it’s such a small club — at yesterday’s consistory, 226 cardinals in all, including 132 electors — they must all be tight.
Yet when Node recently asked one of the new inductees how many cardinals in the world he personally knew, the answer was telling: “About seven.”
While this response may be on the low end of the average, it is nonetheless true that many cardinals today are indeed strangers to one another. Given Francis’ penchant for doling out red hats in unlikely places, it’s the most natural thing in the world – after all, what are the odds, really, that the Cardinal of Ekwulobia in Nigeria is the best friend of his colleague in, say, Singapore or Mongolia?
In fact, many observers assume that the real purpose of the two-day meeting of cardinals that begins tomorrow is not so much to discuss Vatican reform, which is the apparent motive – after all, as noted above, most of these cardinals don’t know much about the Vatican, and two days is barely enough to give them a meaningful crash course.
What the session will accomplish, however, is to at least give them the opportunity to meet each other and get a fleeting sense of each other’s concerns and experiences.
All this can only have an impact on the election of a pope, whatever the moment.
I remember that in 2005, a cardinal who had participated in the conclave had a large notebook of information on various papabile, or Candidates, whom he studied on the flight to Rome, later explaining that he felt compelled to do so because he really didn’t know much about most of them. (Ultimately, this conclave ended up selecting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whom almost everyone knew, but no one could be sure of that outcome.)
This misunderstanding has been compounded under Pope Francis, meaning much of what will have to happen the next time cardinals meet for an election is not so much campaigning as presentations.
Perhaps the moral of this story can be summed up as follows.
When looking at a cardinal, try to moderate your expectations. Yes, they hold the highest office in the church except for the papacy itself – but that doesn’t make them experts in everything, including, frankly, a lot of the things you’d really like to know.