Papal Transition
Posted Thursday April 2, 2005 at 10:10 a.m. CST

Assessing the electors

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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 conclave.

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 diplomacy.

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


National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2005

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