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Analysis: The ever-changing College of Cardinals
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The College of Cardinals celebrates Mass on March 12, 2013, before entering the Sistine Chapel for the papal conclave. | Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

The most recent change in the College of Cardinals took place on Feb. 24, when Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán turned 80 and was thus removed from the ranks of cardinal-electors. A few weeks earlier, on Feb. 12, Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno also turned 80 and, therefore, is no longer eligible to cast a vote in a conclave.

There are currently 129 cardinals who could vote in a conclave, nine more than the maximum of 120 set by Paul VI and confirmed by all of his successors since.

During the 11 years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has convened nine consistories to create new cardinals. In the process, he has created 142 cardinals, including 113 electors and 29 non-electors, from 70 nations. Of these nations, 22 had never had a cardinal before.

This level of activity stands in contrast with St. John Paul II, who convened nine consistories during a 27-year-long pontificate, as well as Pope Benedict XVI, who convened five in eight years. Nonetheless, the record for new red hats belongs to John Paul II, who created 231 new cardinals during his pontificate.

Were a conclave to begin today, there would be 94 cardinal-electors created by Pope Francis, 27 created by Benedict XVI, and eight made by John Paul II. To elect the pope, a block of 86 votes would be needed (two-thirds of the assembly), and the cardinals created by Pope Francis are more than two-thirds.

What the College of Cardinals will look like at the end of 2024

However, by the end of 2024, 10 more cardinals will lose the right to vote in the conclave. Therefore, if Pope Francis were not to convene a new consistory by the end of the year, the number would return below the maximum of 120 cardinal-electors.

Among the 10 cardinals who will turn 80 in the next few months, there is Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, prefect emeritus of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, considered influential but who has long wanted to leave public office, having asked the pope to also be dispensed from participating in the Synod on Synodality. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect emeritus of the Dicastery for Bishops, will also turn 80.

For the other four cardinals who will turn 80 over the next 10 months, the pope must find a successor for their respective roles, as they are all still in active service. These are the archbishop of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley (June 29); the major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza (Sept. 15); the archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela, Cardinal Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo (Oct. 10); and the archbishop of Bombay, India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias (Dec. 24).

O’Malley and Gracias are also members of the Council of Cardinals established by the pope for the reform and government of the Roman Curia.

Cardinal Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, apostolic vicar of Vientiane, Laos, will also turn 80 in 2024, as will Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, archbishop emeritus of Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania; Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, archbishop emeritus of Bordeaux, France; and Cardinal John Njue, archbishop emeritus of Nairobi, Kenya.

In light of the above, by the end of 2024, the cardinal-electors created by Pope Francis will number 91, while those made by previous popes will have been drastically reduced. In fact, by that time at a future conclave, there will only be 22 cardinals created by Benedict XVI and six by John Paul II.

A Francis-like conclave?

These numbers suggest that the election of a successor to Pope Francis could very quickly be oriented toward a papal profile similar to that of Pope Francis. In reality, however, the outcome of the conclave could be very different.

For the most part, popes have convened consistories to discuss and consult the cardinals on major issues for the life of the Church.

During his pontificate, however, Pope Francis has only convened a consistory three times to discuss issues at hand. This first occurred in 2014, when another consistory accompanied the consistory for the creation of new cardinals to discuss family issues, with a report by Cardinal Walter Kasper.

In 2015, the reform of the Curia was discussed with various reports and in 2022, the pope asked the cardinals to take into account the reform of the Curia he had just established with the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium.

The last consistory’s discussion structure also differed from the usual pattern. The cardinals were gathered in small linguistic groups; not all of them could speak before the assembly and several left written documents on what their speech would have been without presenting it before the other members of the College of Cardinals. While presented as an effort to make the discussion more efficient, this structure took away traditionally important moments of interaction and mutual understanding.

These are not just minor details. The discussions that take place during consistories allow the cardinals to get to know each other and the personalities involved to define themselves more precisely.

For example, the papal candidacy of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla emerged from some of these discussions, along with the fact that Paul VI had called upon him to preach the spiritual exercises of Lent at the Curia in 1976. Although Wojtyla was an authoritative and well-known figure, it would not have been easy to obtain the support of his fellow cardinals if he had not had the opportunity to make himself known in these circumstances.

The next conclave, therefore, will get underway with somewhat of a handicap inasmuch as the cardinals will not know each other as well. This could be a boon, on the one hand, to the formation of pressure groups that could steer the conclave in one direction or another. But, on the other hand, it will also likely make the outcome more unpredictable. For this reason, although Pope Francis has created more than two-thirds of the cardinal-electors, it is by no means a sure thing that the pope who is chosen in a future conclave will have the same profile as Pope Francis.

A reform of conclave rules in the offing?

As things stand, the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, promulgated by John Paul II in 1996, will regulate the conclave. That constitution provided, among other things, that starting from the 34th ballot (or from the 35th, if the vote was also taken on the opening day of the conclave), an absolute majority is enough to elect a pope.

That provision was modified by Benedict XVI in 2007 with the motu proprio De Aliquibus Mutationibus in Normis de Electione Romani Pontificis. The new rule provides that at the 34th or 35th ballot, in the event of a “deadlock,” a runoff will be held between the two cardinals with the most votes, who, however, will not be able to participate in the ballot. However, the election will take place only if one of the two receives two-thirds of the votes, as expected in all other ballots.

These rules aim to obtain a broad consensus on the elected pope, who can thus count on the support of the entire College of Cardinals.

For some time now, there has been talk of a project by Pope Francis to reform the rules of the conclave. Among the reforms that could be under discussion: the lowering of the quorum for the election of the pope starting from the 15th ballot; the exclusion of cardinals over 80 from the general congregations, i.e. the pre-conclave meetings, in which both voting and nonvoting cardinals participate; and a new structuring of the general congregations themselves, on the model of the last consistory — that is, with the division of the cardinals into working groups and reports entrusted to a moderator.

However, no study for changing the rules of the conclave has been officially announced. Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, who has become the pope’s trusted canon lawyer in recent years, is said to have proposed some draft reforms, but there is no confirmation of this either.

It remains to be seen, therefore, if these rumors about a reform of the conclave’s rules are the result of honest discussions or simply agitation and speculation in the face of the well-known unpredictability of Pope Francis.

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Andrea Gagliarducci is an Italian journalist for Catholic News Agency and Vatican analyst for ACI Stampa. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register.

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