A reformed (and re-formed) College of Cardinals

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A red skull cap is seen as the world's cardinals gather in St. Peter's Basilica before the start of the last conclave in this 2005 file photo. Pope Benedict XVI named 24 new cardinals Oct. 20. The upcoming consistory will leave the College of Cardinals w ith 203 members, a new record. Of those, 121 will be under age 80 and eligible to vote in a papal election. (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)

A red skull cap is seen as the world’s cardinals gather in St. Peter’s Basilica before the start of the last conclave in this 2005 file photo. Pope Benedict XVI named 24 new cardinals Oct. 20. The upcoming consistory will leave the College of Cardinals w ith 203 members, a new record. Of those, 121 will be under age 80 and eligible to vote in a papal election. (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)

The recent papal interregnum and conclave underscored the importance of re-forming, and reforming, the College of Cardinals.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Opinions expressed are the writers' and not necessarily the views of The Catholic Sun or the Diocese of Phoenix.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Opinions expressed are the writers’ and not necessarily the views of The Catholic Sun or the Diocese of Phoenix.

As configured on Feb. 28, 2013 (when Benedict XVI’s abdication took effect), the College was a somewhat strange electorate, albeit one that produced a striking result. Almost 20 percent of its members were retired. Only eight cardinal-electors were under 65 (and half of the youngsters were Americans — Cardinals Burke, DiNardo, Dolan and Harvey). Neither the Dean nor Vice-Dean of the College was eligible to vote, the Dean being 85 and the Vice-Dean being 90; yet the 85-year-old Dean presided over the daily General Congregations of cardinals that assessed the state of the world Church before the conclave was enclosed.

There were other curiosities. India had more cardinal-electors than France (5-4) or Great Britain (5-nil, as they’d say in the Barclays Premier League). Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, emeritus major-archbishop of the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, missed the conclave by two days, having turned 80 on Feb. 26; the retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Walter Kasper, got in under the wire, for he turned 85 days after Benedict’s abdication took effect.

And while no one imagines that the College of Cardinals should “represent” the world Church the way the U.S. House of Representatives “represents” the population of the United States, it did seem odd that Latin America, where over half the world’s Catholics live, sent 19 cardinal-electors into the Sistine Chapel, while Italy, where Catholic practice is not exactly robust these days among 4 percent of the global Catholic population, had 28 electors.

What to do about these anomalies? Some practical suggestions, several drawn from my new book, “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church” (Basic Books):

1) Eliminate “automatic” red hats for archdioceses where the practice of the faith is moribund. If 7 percent of the local Catholic population is attending Mass on Sunday, as is sadly the case in some ancient European sees, why should the bishop or archbishop of that see be guaranteed membership in the College of Cardinals? Let the bishops in these dead zones show that they can re-evangelize Catholic wastelands; then return the red hat to those locales.

2) Amend the relevant apostolic constitution so that most of the “pontifical councils” in the Roman Curia become in-house research institutes led, not by cardinals, but by qualified priests, religious or laity.

3) Change the custom by which the heads of various Vatican administrative offices — the Government of Vatican City State, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See — are automatically cardinals: a reform that would also speak to Pope Francis’s strictures against clerical careerism.

4) Use the “slots” in the papal electorate made possible by these reforms to reorganize the College geographically and demographically.

I would also consider expanding the College to a maximum of 144 cardinal-electors (a nice biblical number: 12 Tribes x 12 Apostles), while changing the conclave rules so that all cardinals lose their vote on retirement from daily diocesan or curial service, not when they turn 80. There is wisdom in age; but an electorate in which almost one in five voters is a pensioner is not a well-designed electorate.

Neither the Dean nor the Vice-Dean of the College should be a cardinal-without-a-vote; it makes little sense for the man who presides over the cardinals’ meetings during a papal interregnum (in which all cardinals participate, irrespective of age), or the man who would fill that leadership role in an emergency, to be someone who will not have the responsibility of casting a ballot. And since the Church cannot count on humility to impel the Dean and Vice-Dean to retire when each loses his vote, the interregnum rules should be changed.

Finally, the cardinal-electors should meet regularly — perhaps once every 18 months, for a global review of the New Evangelization — so that they can get to know each other better, and thus be a more well-informed electorate.

4 COMMENTS

  1. very sound and bold thinking.need of the hour not only to the college of cardinals but also to the grass root.
    Not only in France even in south India predominantly more populated by Catholics the churches are deserted… Catholics are pushed to the sectarians and pulled by denominated churches.Fr.A.Thomas.

  2. This is very interesting. Although ‘inside baseball’ for the lay guy like myself, eliminating “automatic” red hats for archdioceses where the practice of the faith is moribund.” WOW! Will the Vatican go for it?

  3. #2 – let “laity” run the Pontifical Councils? WHOA, red flag alert.

    As we learn from history, a lot of the promotion of laity is done in anti-Catholic stealth. Take for example the prior US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), where some paid laity directors were pro-abortion anti-Catholicism activists who simultaneously sat on directorships of organizations around the globe that promoted anti-Catholic agendas such as abortion, contraception (often mandatory) and euthanasia. They wrote booklets and produced videos for that USCCB that were designed to lead unsuspecting or unwitting Catholic voters into the satanic den of the American pro-death party of obama. The USCCB’s Catholic Relief Services is still mired in controversy over their funding of various anti-life organizations around the world.

    Maybe reform is needed, but very strict and transparent oversight is absolutely required. That applies equally to the laity and the new-age priests and bishops who don’t like the Holy Catholic Church and would love to get their transformative hands on the Councils and Administrative Offices and red skull caps.

    CAUTION IS ADVISED.

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