On January 6, Benedict XVI announced that he will create 22 new cardinals on February 18, among them 18 electors and 4 considered “honorary” cardinals, being over age 80…

The question mark in the headline above is “tongue-in-cheek.” Of course the Pope is the one making the final choice of the 22 new cardinals he will create on February 18 at a special consistory called for this purpose on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany! So why the question mark?

Because this group of cardinals contains anomalies — for example, many Italians and few Africans (none, in fact).

And these anomalies have led many Vatican watchers to suggest that the choices are not so much those of Benedict himself as of his inner circle, a circle headed by the Italian Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, from Genoa.

One point is paramount here: the cardinals have only one supreme function, one specific task that no one else has: to participate in a conclave and to choose a Pope, a successor of Peter.

For centuries, the nationality of the man chosen Pope was not an issue: the Pope was always Italian. Why? Because the Vatican was in Rome, Rome was in Italy, and the majority of cardinals were Italian, and there wasn’t much more to be said about it.

So, for 455 years, only Italians became Popes. That tradition was shattered, dramatically, when John Paul II was elected in 1978 (though even at his election, there was still strong support for Italian candidates, like Giuseppe Siri of Genoa).

When John Paul II died in 2005, many in Rome wondered if the cardinals would return to tradition and choose an Italian to be his successor. They did not. Joseph Ratzinger, from Germany, was chosen, and he became Benedict XVI. So there have been two non-Italian Popes in a row.

But Pope Benedict, in his four consistories (including this upcoming one), has done something that could be a factor in future papal elections. In choosing 84 cardinals, 68 of them still electors (that is, still under age 80), he has increased the percentage of Italians dramatically, against the historical trend.

In 1903, the Italian cardinals in the College were 56.25% of the total; in 1939, 54.8%; in 1963, 35.36%; in 1978, 22.5%; and in 2005, 17.09%. The number was continually, even dramatically, less.

John Paul II’s choices as cardinals were only 22% Italian.

But, of the 68 voting cardinals Benedict has created, 21 are Italian: 30.1%.

This means the voting Italian cardinals now make up about 25% of the College — a dramatic increase from 17% in 2005.

The point is this: the College of Cardinals has not continued to “internationalize” or “globalize” over the past five years at the same pace as over the previous 25. There has been a “retrenchment.” Why?

Pope Benedict is obviously not interested in adhering to pre-set national “quotas” in choosing his cardinals.

His criteria is obviously a different one, and that is, evidently, men who have a sense of the global Church because they have worked in the Curia and seen the ebb-and-flow of ecclesial events from the perspective of the center, from Rome.

And this means that the men he is choosing might not adhere to any “nationalist” agenda in choosing a Pope. In fact, as the last two elections showed, Italian cardinals are able to observe the situation of the Church in the world today, and are capable of voting for a non-Italian to lead the Church.

However, the fact that 25% of the electors are Italian means that, should the Italians wish to consolidate their votes around one or another candidate, they have the electoral “weight” to do so rather effectively.

One of the commentators noting this in Italy was Sandro Magister, a veteran Italian Vaticanist. He observed in January that a number of criticisms of this inversion of tendency “have been aimed above all at the influence believed to have been exercised in the selection of the new cardinals by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state.”

Of course, any Pope would listen very carefully to the advice of his top staff people, especially of the secretary of state. So what is the criticism, really?

It is not, strictly speaking, that individual Churchmen have been “rewarded” with the red hat. The overwhelming majority of those chosen hold offices that are “cardinalatial” according to tradition.

The criticism actually seems to be one with elements of “political correctness”: that the Curia, the Pope’s advisors, his secretary of state, and he himself, ought to follow some sort of “percentage rule” when choosing cardinals, in order to give the College of Cardinals a “representational” character — a “democratic” character.

And this is the thinking that Benedict seems to be decisively rejecting, whether at Bertone’s insistence or not, we do not know. But is it a bad thing that the Pope is rejecting a type of “political correctness” in this matter? No. It is a sign that he is still leaving some room for the Holy Spirit.

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