Newest cardinals cement pope's conservative stance

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II's selection of 31 new cardinals has cemented the conservative line of the group that will pick his successor, but it has also broadened it geographically and increased the possibility of a Third World pope, experts said Monday.

Cardinals new and old will have their first chance to size one another up when they gather in three weeks for the 25th anniversary of John Paul's pontificate and the formal consistory to give the new cardinals their red hats -- an event many are calling a pre-conclave.

"There'll be lots of subterranean politics happening at this meeting," said Chester Gillis, chair of the theology department at Georgetown University. "Everyone is anticipating that this papacy is very close to its end. Therefore, the cardinals may not have another time to be together again until the conclave."

The pope appointed the 31 on Sunday, bringing to at least 135 the number of voting-age members of the College of Cardinals, the elite band of churchmen who will select the next pontiff when John Paul dies, almost certainly from within their own ranks.

The college actually has 195 members now, but only those under age 80 are eligible to vote in a conclave.

Ensuring continuity

John Paul's selection contained few surprises, and didn't alter the theological makeup of the electors, all but five of whom have been named by the current pope. They follow his conservative line on major issues such as abortion and the death penalty.

"He wants to ensure continuity of theme and emphasis in the next pontificate, and the surest way to do that is to appoint to the rank of cardinal those Catholic leaders -- those archbishops and bishops who are in agreement with him on fundamental priorities," R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, said in a telephone interview.

While continuity in policy is almost a given with the next pope, there may be changes in personality and style of governance, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

"For example, the cardinals may look for someone who would allow more decentralization in decision-making in the church, with more power to individual bishops and bishops conferences rather than the Vatican curia," he said.

However, not all cardinals view themselves as mere rubber stamps for papal policy.

Cardinal Karl Lehmann waited years for his red hat, despite his position as head of the German Bishops Conference. Some viewed the delay as a show of displeasure for frequent calls by the German bishops for the Vatican to fully allow divorced and remarried Catholics back into the Church.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a Belgian cardinal viewed as a possible papal candidate, has spoken out forcefully on the need for greater "collegiality" -- a Vatican code word for greater democracy in John Paul's very centralized church.

Fewer Italians

John Paul's new selections shifted slightly the geographic distribution of the papal electors.

Africa got three new cardinals, from Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria. Latin America also added three, from Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala, as did Asia, with one new cardinal each from India, Japan and Vietnam.

However, the so-called Third World contingent lost ground proportionally, because John Paul increased the overall size of the electoral pool.

Europe increased its proportion slightly, now holding 48.9 percent of the electoral seats. Italy still has by far the largest individual bloc, with 23 voting-age cardinals, although its overall percentage slipped from the last conclave in 2001, Reese noted.

When Pope Paul VI was elected in 1963, there were 29 Italians in the 80-member conclave, or more than 25 percent. That figure is now down to 16 percent.

The Polish-born John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, and Vatican observers say that with an increasingly globalized College of Cardinals, the next pope may be non-Italian as well, perhaps from the developing world. Latin Americans are the largest geographic bloc after the Europeans in the college, and they minister to half the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. In Africa and Asia, the church is directing missionary activities to expand its numbers.

"The church of the 21st century will be brown and black," Appleby said. "The church is growing rapidly in Africa, it is an enormous presence in Latin America, and it's growing in Asia, while the church in Europe and North America is barely holding its own at diminished levels of participation."

John Paul has worked to elevate more cardinals from the developing world, increasing the possibility one of them may eventually be pope. However, there is no way to predict how anyone will vote once the secret balloting gets under way.

"The possibility of a Third World papacy is more likely, although not guaranteed at all," Gillis said.

A Latin American pope could be a political move by the church to counter Protestant evangelism, he said.

An African pope, on the other hand, could put the church on better footing to confront major challenges such as the Muslim-Christian divide, which is playing out in many African countries, Appleby said.

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