On August 18, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, turned 80 and will no longer enter the Conclave. One of Pope Francis’ most trusted men, created cardinal in the first Consistory and called by the presidency of the Ecclesiastical Academy to lead the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Stella is one of those cardinals who will never participate in the election of a Pope. His exit from the ranks of voting cardinals changes the college of cardinals a little and perhaps leaves room for Pope Francis to make a series of new moves.
Since August 18, the cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave are 122. Paul VI had established the maximum number of cardinal electors at 120, and John Paul II later confirmed this limit. However, John Paul II himself deviated from the number of 120 in his last Consistory, aware that many would be exceeding the age of 80, drastically reducing the number of voting cardinals. The 2005 conclave had 115 cardinals (two absent).
Pope Francis had waived the number with the last Consistory of 2020, when it had reached 128 cardinal electors. They would have been 129 if Cardinal Angelo Becciu had also been counted among the electors. Cardinal Becciu, however, renounced the prerogatives of a cardinal at the request of the Pope, even if the provision was never defined in detail. Therefore, he is not considered a cardinal elector, but, de facto, no decree and no measure of the College of Cardinals excludes him. Consequently, it remains a mystery whether Cardinal Becciu could be excluded from a Conclave based on the basis of a press release from the Holy See Press Office, without any decrees implementing the decision.
In any case, today, there are 122 cardinal electors, only two above the number of 120. Of these, 13 are still cardinals created by John Paul II, 39 created by Benedict XVI, and 70 created by Francis.
The Cardinals are now 219: 60 created by John Paul II, 66 by Benedict XVI, and 93 by Pope Francis. During the year, ten cardinals died, of which only one an elector: Cardinal Cornelius Sim, apostolic vicar of Brunei.
The Cardinal’s exclusion from an upcoming conclave deprives the assembly of one of the possible kingmakers who would well represent the line of Pope Francis. So what will Pope Francis do?
Up to now, Pope Francis has been very methodical in his management of the college of cardinals. He held a consistory every year of his pontificate. To understand the Pope’s impact on the formation of the college, it is enough to consider that John Paul II held just 9 in 27 years of his pontificate.
In his choices, the Pope has always favored residential archbishops and preferably not from traditionally cardinalate dioceses. It does not mean, however, that the Pope ignored the Curia. On the contrary, he has created as many cardinals as he has nominated in top positions in the Curia, including the Pontifical Almoner—a “functional” decision that somehow equates the Almoner to an office of the Curia. It is not. The Almoner is instead one of the Pope’s family members, called alongside the Pope and the Prefect of the Papal Household during state visits.
But how many of these new cardinals created by Pope Francis have a tangible impact on the next Conclave? Cardinal Becciu, considered one of the possible kingmakers, is formally out of the game, and so is Cardinal Beniamino Stella. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, is someone everyone could look to, but ultimately he is not considered fully aligned with Pope Francis. The other profiles considered by Pope Francis are closer to his way of thinking but do not have a real impact on the College of Cardinals.
In many cases, the problem lies in the impossibility of the cardinals to know each other. For example, Pope Francis has called only one Consistory for a broad discussion, on the theme of the family, in 2014. The cardinals were called to Rome only for the creation of new red hats. The number of cardinals created by Pope Francis, who often come from the peripheries, did not allow many of these new cardinals to be known by the confreres.
What is beginning to emerge is a very uncertain conclave, in which the investiture of the Pope in office, which has never counted that much, will have even less impact. However, all the moves of Pope Francis so far suggest that the Pope wants to give at least one address to the Conclave which should choose his successor.
This is why there is talk of a possible new consistory, very small (of about five cardinals) next October. With one or two almost obvious choices (Archbishop Roche, who became prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship; Archbishop of Milan Mario Delpini, whose predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Scola, is over 80 years old) and others less obvious ones, as if to create a further imbalance within the college.
It was also said that the Pope wanted to change the rules of the Conclave, raising the number of cardinal electors and therefore going to enlarge the electoral base. It is difficult for the Pope to make a structured intervention on the subject, and a fundamental reform of the Universi Dominici Gregis, the Apostolic Constitution that regulates the norms of the Conclave, does not seem in sight. The Pope could simply depart from the norms.
This could also disappoint many of the Pope’s supporters, who have recently begun to ask for a reform of the Conclave’s own rules. In particular, it is requested to start the total isolation of cardinals during in the period of the General Congregations, the so-called “pre-conclave meetings” in which non-electoral cardinals also participate.
Why? There is, it seems, the fear that a broader discussion, also fueled by external news, could also lead the new cardinals away from a profile similar to that of Pope Francis. After all, some of the Pope’s provisions have been managed prudently at the episcopal level. For example, it was undoubtedly striking that Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, supported the Mass celebrated in the ancient rite after the motu proprio of the Pope, Traditions Custodes. A sign, after all, that the Pope’s more challenging and less conciliatory choices generate divisions rather than consensus. And none of the cardinals want to find themselves amid these divisions, considering the uncertainty of the future.
But Cardinal Zuppi’s decision can also be an alarm bell for Pope Francis because it shows that not everyone is willing to blindly follow his directions when faced with the possibility of creating a bridge. It is not known if the Pope will have further reactions, and make other moves to limit the problem. But the problem is there, and it is a significant issue. So what will the Pope do in view of the next Conclave.