Twenty two new cardinals and the next Pope?

by | Jan 7, 2012 | Church

In the past week there have been two significant appraisals of possible next steps in leadership in the Church. One is from the London tablet and the other from the National Catholic Reporter.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter writes…”Naming new cardinals is among the more important acts of any papacy, because the cardinals form the “electoral college” that will pick the next pope. That’s arguably even more significant this time around, given that Benedict XVI will turn 85 in April – and although there’s no sign of any health crisis, at that age it’s natural to begin thinking about what might come next.”

The London Tablet writes…”One of the talking points in Rome in recent months has been the growing frailty of Pope Benedict. Inevitably, speculation has turned to his likely successor. Our Rome correspondent offers an insider’s guide to those considered papabile”

In just a few months from now, Pope Benedict XVI will officially surpass Blessed John Paul II and become the oldest man in more than 100 years to serve as Bishop of Rome. The Polish Pope died just 16 days shy of his eighty-fifth birthday, a milestone Pope Benedict is set to reach on 16 April. Only four other popes since the end of the thirteenth century have made it to 86 years of age, of which the most recent was Pope Leo XIII, who died aged 93 in 1903.

Although Pope Benedict’s general health appears to be good, he has begun to show signs of fatigue and increasing frailty. History and prudence would suggest that the car­dinals of the Church should seriously start thinking about suitable candidates to succeed him. Casting a vote for the Successor of Peter is the main and gravest purpose for which they are given a red hat. They must avoid being caught unprepared, as apparently they were at the last conclave, when a number of cardinals publicly confessed that they did not know their confrères very well.

The next Pope is likely to be the product of a compromise among the electors, evidently not the case at the last conclave. The voting rules had been significantly revised in 1996 by Pope John Paul II, allowing for a simple majority vote after a couple of weeks of stalemate. Previously, voting would continue until a candidate received two-thirds-plus-one votes. Apparently, Joseph Ratzinger had reached a simple majority early in the balloting and, according to one theory, a number of other cardinals agreed to add their support to his candidacy rather than risk a protracted conclave and highlighting the divisiveness that that would have signalled.

This is not likely to happen at the next conclave. Shortly after his election, Pope Benedict wisely changed the rules back to the traditional system. So his successor is most likely to have been someone with broad support rather than one coming mainly from a particular faction. According to number 1024 in the Code of Canon Law, any baptised male is eligible. But since 1378, the Pope has always been elected from within the College of Cardinals.

Even if Pope Benedict creates any number of new members before the next conclave, the college is likely to maintain certain characteristics. First, there will be a significant group of men with experience of working in the Roman Curia, meaning the man who is eventually elected Pope will have to have the backing of this bloc. Secondly, approximately half or more of the members will be Europeans and an even larger percentage will have studied in Rome or somewhere else on the Old Continent. Thus, the successful candidate, even if not European, is likely to have undergone a degree of European cross-pollination. And since this is an election for Bishop of Rome, any serious papabile must have a decent command of the Italian language.


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