Men in hats


Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, I was just reflecting that, in a very real sense, Saturday’s consistory was quite interesting. And not necessarily in the way most people think.

Okay, we know the basics, which is that a consistory marks a gathering of the College of Cardinals, specifically one where new members are appointed. It’s also the case that the College’s main function is to elect the next Pope, although, Deo volente, that’s a function that won’t be required for some time.

Getting beyond that, we usually get a) attempts to second-guess the next conclave, which is not very illuminating and almost invariably wrong; and b) interpretations based on categories of “liberal” and “conservative”, which aren’t very meaningful in the context of Catholic politics, and certainly not at this level.

So, having said all that, what can we make of the 22 new cardinals who were created on Saturday, 18 of whom are under 80 and therefore electors? One striking point is that, unlike JP2, Pope Benedict has been something of a stickler for protocol. He’s kept the number of electors pretty close to the crucial 120 mark, and red hats have gone out to those major archdioceses and Roman curias that traditionally get them, while some rising stars have had to wait their turn. Nor does this fit with the common narrative of a College being stacked with ultra-conservatives in the image of B16 himself (or rather, the cartoon image of him we’re usually retailed). All of the appointees I can see are entirely mainstream figures – I don’t notice any particularly strong traditionalists, nor do I see any Roger Mahony types from the other end of the spectrum.

The nearest we can see to pure pontifical preference is with the cardinals appointed who are over 80 and therefore don’t have a conclave vote, but are being honoured for past service. Two names jump out at me – the German theologian Karl Becker SJ, who’s been a long-time collaborator with the CDF in doctrinal investigations; and the 86-year-old Prof Prosper Grech, who may be one of the smartest men alive, and quite incredibly is only Malta’s second cardinal in its entire history. There’s also 91-year-old Belgian religious historian Julien Ries, who again is well deserving of the honour.

But when you get down to the 18 electors, yes, it’s very much following traditional allocations. We see, for instance, Toronto archbishop Tom Collins, who wasn’t appointed at the 2010 consistory because his predecessor, the late Cardinal Alojzij Ambrožič, was still (just) under 80 at that point. On the other hand, some priorities can be seen. The quick elevation of John Tong Hon of Hong Kong, who’s filling the considerable shoes of Cardinal Zen, reflects the importance the Holy See places on its fraught relationship with China. There’s been a little surprise about a red hat going to Berlin’s Rainer Maria Woelki, who is a mere boy of 55 and has only been an archbishop for seven months, but then he is a protégé of Cologne’s formidable Joachim Meisner and is down with the programme for regenerating the Church in Germany.

There’s also a very minor bending of the rule against having two electors in the one diocese, with the elevation of New York’s Tim Dolan and Václav Havel’s old chum Dominik Duka of Prague, while the sitting cardinals for those cities (Edward Egan and Miloslav Vlk) are still a short way off their eightieth birthday. So the Vatican isn’t entirely unbending when we’re dealing with the popular archbishop of a major city.

I must confess here that I like Dolan a lot. He’s an excellent communicator and unafraid of controversy, at a level of Church politics where waffling bishops are all too common. He took on the thankless task of cleaning up the Milwaukee archdiocese after the debacle that was Rembert Weakland’s long reign. His visitation of Irish seminaries is likely to prove extremely important. His regular-guy persona isn’t a persona at all, but simply how he is – while Cardinal Egan is known as a great connoisseur of Michelin-starred cuisine, Dolan is much more likely to be found watching a baseball game with a beer in one hand and pretzel in the other. And I think it’s immediately refreshing to find a senior churchman who isn’t a dour middle manager promoted beyond his station, but a really joyful and positive character who reminds you that it’s a vocation.

The Americans seem to have a pretty good episcopal crop at the moment. I wish we could import some, or learn what they’re doing right.