Making a diverse College of Cardinals work

George Weigel

With the exception of the two consistories held by Pope John XXIII in 1958 and 1959, every creation of new cardinals since Pope Pius XII has decreased the percentage of Italian members of the College of Cardinals while internationalizing it. (John XXIII’s first consistory actually increased the Italian membership to 40% of an expanded College.) That pattern of internationalization and, if you will, de-Italianization has continued with Pope Francis and the College now includes members from fifteen countries (such as Tonga, Laos, and Papua New Guinea) that have never given the Church a cardinal before.

There are obvious advantages to this internationalization, in terms of the cardinals’ role as an ecclesiastical senate of senior papal counselors and their responsibility for electing the pope. A wider representation of countries and ecclesial experiences should, in theory, allow for a broader-gauged reflection on the Catholic reality in different parts of the world, both in the Roman offices, in whose work the cardinals participate and in a papal conclave. But that broadening can’t happen if the cardinals don’t meet with some regularity as a body – and they haven’t in a long time. Since the Extraordinary Consistory of 2014 (during which Cardinal Walter Kasper opened the argument about marital permanence and sacramental discipline that continues, unabated, today), there has been no meeting of the College as a body, because Pope Francis has not called one. Cardinals who wish to see their new brothers invested in the College may attend the installation ceremony, but there have been no formal meetings of the whole body of cardinals since February 2014.

This would seem to be a problem, for the blunt fact is that the members of the College of Cardinals really don’t know each other. They’ve not had the opportunity to learn each other’s concerns and views beyond what they read in the media. They’ve not measured each other spiritually and intellectually. They’ve not shared collegially in serious debate and discussion about the issues that confront the entire world Church. They are, in a sense, strangers. And strangers, as we all know, are often reluctant to speak frankly with each other. (Or even speak obliquely, which is more often the Roman manner.)

A college of strangers is not, presumably, what Pope Francis wanted with his diversification of the world cardinalate. But unless he begins gathering the men who will choose his successor on a more regular basis, the cardinals will enter a future conclave as strangers who, because of their lack of familiarity with each other, will likely rely on the world press for information about men they really should know from personal experience. Given the realities of world communications in the 21st century, it’s inevitable that the media will play some role in a conclave. But the media shouldn’t be so prominent in defining the playing field and the players.

There is also a structural problem with the way a conclave presently functions that Pope Francis, the reformer, might well address.

Under the current rules, the conclave begins balloting almost immediately after it’s immured (i.e., locked up, with no contact with the outside world except for the famous smoke coming from a stack atop the Sistine Chapel). This rapidity of balloting should be reconsidered. Why not change the rules so that the actual cardinal-electors (as distinguished from the cardinals over eighty years old who do not vote in a conclave but who participate in the “general congregations” of cardinals during a papal interregnum) have three days by themselves to conduct discussions and get to know each other better? Wouldn’t such a pause for common prayer, reflection, and fraternity, with no outside interference, help facilitate the kind of prudent decision-making the Church always hopes for in a papal election? Such a built-in “pause” would also minimize the pressure that has been felt in recent conclaves to reach a decision quickly in order to demonstrate the Church’s unity before the world media starts speculating about divisions, crises, and so on. If it were clear to everyone that there would be no votes until the morning of the fourth day of a conclave, that pressure would largely dissipate.

The diversification of the College of Cardinals, in other words, has to be made to work toward the ends it was supposed to serve.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez | CNA

COMING UP: Baseball and Synod 2018

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I trust it won’t cause heartburn among the editors of Commonweal if I confess to having cheered at a recent article they posted, “Quit Trying to ‘Fix’ Baseball.” Therein, Professor Gregory Hillis of Bellarmine College took on MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to appeal to millennials – creatures from that deep lagoon known as “social media” – by speeding up the pastime. Prof. Hillis called the ball foul, and I heartily concur.

Baseball is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God precisely because it doesn’t work by clock-time, like football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and hockey. A baseball game could, in theory, be eternal. So, to enter the transcendent time-beyond-time of a ballgame is to experience a bit of what awaits us at what the Book of Revelation calls the Wedding Feast of the Lamb: an eternal present.

As Professor Hollis points out, Americans, who live in increasingly thin-sliced fractions of time, need a break from all that. And to tinker with baseball’s hallowed structure in order to appease a generation marked by attention-deficits is a concession that ought not be made: precisely for the sake of those addicted to instant gratification, instant communication, and instant linkage to whomever, wherever, about whatever. Baseball slows down a generation that badly needs a sense of repose.

Thus far, Commissioner Manfred’s tinkering hasn’t done irreparable damage, although I do object, vigorously, to the silly, allegedly time-saving device of signaling an intentional walk rather than deliberately throwing four consecutive pitches outside the strike zone. Prior to this lapse into subjectivism, baseball was a rigorously objective game: a baseball act wasn’t completed until it was, well, completed – the home run hitter must touch all the bases; the catcher who drops a third strike must complete the play by throwing out the batter at first. This insistence on the completed act taught something important, analogically, about the rootedness of the moral life in reality. That’s now being jeopardized, and things could get worse if the major leagues adopt such gnostic devices as starting extra innings by giving the team at bat a man on second base.

Professor Hillis neatly sums up his indictment and his concern: “Perhaps more thought needs to be given to the idea that … baseball’s popularity problem isn’t a consequence of a broken game, but of a society whose ability to enjoy the leisure of baseball has atrophied.” Maybe baseball should offer young people what they need, which is an experience of true leisure, not what they think they want: another quick buzz.

And that brings us by a roundabout route to the upcoming Synod of Bishops on youth ministry and vocational discernment. Just before Easter there was a “listening” session in Rome, hosted by the Synod general secretariat, in which several hundred (handpicked) young adults told senior Church officials what they liked and disliked about Catholicism. No new ground was broken, and the conference’s rather dull final document (which bore telltale marks of having been drafted beforehand, and not by young people) was equally un-newsworthy. Perhaps that’s because the entire exercise was misconceived.

I’ve been asked dozens of times why John Paul II was such a pied piper for the young. And my answers are always the same: his transparent honesty and his challenge. John Paul never asked young people to take up any challenge he had not accepted, or bear any burden he had not borne. That was palpable, and young people, who have very good baloney detectors, sensed it.

Then there was the challenge. In many variations on one great theme, John Paul II said to the young, in effect, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur the grace of God makes possible in your life. You won’t always succeed. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up when you fall, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation – and then try again to live a life of heroic virtue. Don’t settle for anything less than that.”

The response was tremendous. Synod-2018 should reflect on that. In a world that panders to them, maybe what those who will create the human future really need is challenge. Compelling, compassionate, and merciful, to be sure. But challenge: the challenge to meet in Jesus Christ the answer to the question that is every human life, and through him to live nobly for others.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash