By John L. Allen Jr.
NCR Rome Correspondent
With Pope John
Paul II already able to “see and touch the Lord” because of his failing health,
as Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini put it in a special Mass for the pope in Rome
on April 1, the moment when the cardinals will gather in a conclave to elect a
new pope is likely not far off.
An analysis of the 117
cardinals under 80 eligible to participate in that election, and hence eligible
to be elected, may help shed light on the possibilities for the next pope.
Of those 117 cardinal-electors, Italians represent the
largest single national block, with 20 cardinals, or 17 percent of the college.
Bear in mind, however, this means that 83 percent of the college is non-Italian,
suggesting that by themselves do not have the numerical strength to dictate the
election of the next pope, despite the outsize image that Italian cardinals
often have because Rome is the center of the Catholic Church.
One key statistic is that 56 of the 117 cardinals under 80,
or roughly half the electoral college, is European. Moreover, even many of the
61 cardinals who are not European have studied in Europe or spent considerable
time moving in and out of Europe, especially Rome, which means that European
issues and concerns tend to exercise a disproportionate influence on the
imagination of the cardinals.
Immediately, that suggests that the twin threats of
secularism and Islam will likely loom large as “campaign issues” in the
Eleven of the 117 cardinals who will take part in the next
papal election are from the United States. Seven currently head dioceses: Justin
Rigali of Philadelphia, Francis George of Chicago, Edward Egan of New York,
Theodore McCarrick of Washington, William Keeler of Baltimore, Roger Mahony of
Los Angeles and Adam Maida of Detroit. Three work in Rome: James Francis
Stafford, who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary; Edmund Szoka, president of a
commission for the Vatican city-state, and Bernard Law, archpriest of the
Basilica of St. Mary Major. One American, William Baum, is retired.
Although the Americans are the second largest national
block after the Italians, it is widely considered a virtual impossibility that
an American might be elected. The Catholic Church cannot be led by a superpower
pope; it would fatally compromise what is seen as the independence of Vatican
There are 21 Latin Americans among the cardinals under 80,
including several men widely seen as leading papal contenders: Claudio Hummes of
Sao Paulo, Brazil; Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Norbert
Rivera Carrera of Mexico City, Mexico. There are eight cardinals each from
Africa and Asia, and both contintents have a cardinal among the ranks of the
papabili, or consensus papal candidates: Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria,
and Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay.
Twenty-eight of the cardinals under 80 come from the Roman
Curia, representing roughly 24 percent of the total. This means that 76 of the
electors are from outside Rome, and many of them believe the election of a pope
is an important opportunity to introduce another, non-Roman perspective into the
governance of the church. This reality makes the prospect of electing a pope
directly from the Curia fairly remote.
One other statistic, both revealing and potentially
misleading, is that Pope John Paul II has named all but three of the 117 men who
will elect his successor (the three under-eighty cardinals named by Paul VI are
Baum, Ratzinger, and Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines). That fact testifies
to the length of John Paul’s reign, almost 27 years, and his impact on shaping
the leadership of the church.
Yet it does not mean that John Paul has “stacked the deck”
and pre-determined that his successor will be a man very much like him.
Historically speaking, Colleges of Cardinals appointed by one pope do not
simply duplicate that man in the election of his successor. Instead, they are
trying in part to remedy what they perceive to the weaknesses and limitations of
the former regime, as well as build on its strengths. That sort of electoral
psychology is always a prescription for change.
Historians call this the “pendulum dynamic,” that papal
approaches tend to oscillate from one perspective to the other rather than
staying put. The Italians, as they always do, have a better phrase for it. They
say, “You always follow a fat pope with a thin one.”
This conclave, in other words, will certainly bring
surprise. The question is, a surprise of what kind?
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org