Francis’ cardinals are not all of the same flock

Francis cardinals

Birds of a feather flock together, says the old English proverb. But when it comes to the Church’s cardinals, is that really the case?

More specifically, are all the men who got the red hat from Pope Francis moving with him in the same direction?

Recent events suggest yet again that not all of Francis’ cardinals are so-called “Francis bishops”, prelates who are enthusiastic supporters of his vision for Church reform and renewal.

This became clear most recently by the extremely negative reaction that many of the bishops and cardinals in Africa (but not only there) expressed towards Fiducia supplicans, the “declaration on the pastoral meaning of blessings” that the Vatican doctrinal office issued last December.

It is not an exaggeration to say that many Africans were outraged that the pope had approved a document that allows priests to offer non-liturgical blessings to homosexual couples.

Francis rebuffed by one of his top advisors

Leading their rebuff of the text was Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo), someone who not only got his red hat from Francis but is also one of only nine men who are members of the pope’s chief advisory, the Council of Cardinals (C9).

In fact, the ecclesiastical career of the 64-year-old Capuchin Franciscan has ski-rocketed during the current pontificate.

Ambongo was the bishop of the smallest of DR-Congo’s 47 dioceses in 2013 at the time of Francis’ election.

He had been appointed to the post by John Paul II in November 2004 and it seemed that’s where he would stay. But Francis promoted Ambongo archbishop of Mbandaka-Mikoro in 2016.

And just fifteen months later the pope catapulted him from leading the smallest of DR-Congo’s six archdioceses to being coadjutor bishop of its largest, Kinshasa.

Within another eight months (November 1, 2018) he was the archbishop ordinary.

Just less than a year later (October 2019) he was created a cardinal. And in March 2023 he was appointed to the C9.

Cardinal Ambongo is also president of SECAM (the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences in Africa and Madagascar).

And it was in this capacity that he issued the African prelates’ strongly-worded statement last January, which declared that there would be no blessings for homosexuals on their continent.

Since then, Pope Francis has defended Fiducia supplicans several times in interviews and addresses, often doubling down on his efforts to make the Church more welcoming of homosexuals and other people who are “disordered” or in “irregular unions”.

He’s defended his vision on this particular issue in the wake of attacks made by one of his own cardinals.

It is not clear what else in the current pontificate Cardinal Ambongo does not fully agree with, but the point is that he is not 100% in agreement.

A Francis majority in the next conclave

And what of the other cardinals Francis has created?

How many of them are really Francis bishops?

Conversely, how many are in fundamental disagreement with the Argentine pope on certain issues or even on the direction in which he’s leading the Church?

These are important questions given that, as the pontificate winds down, the cardinal-electors will eventually be called to choose Francis’ successor.

It is usually assumed — uncritically — that, since Francis has now named the overwhelming majority of these electors, he has all but ensured that they will pick someone who will carry on his legacy.

Indeed, the numbers are impressive.

As of February 12, there will be 130 cardinals under the age of 80 who are eligible to participate in a conclave. Of these, 95 have been named by Francis, 27 by Benedict XVI, and 8 by John Paul II.

But things will become more interesting in the coming months as more of these men age out.

By October 10 when the next session of the Synod assembly on synodality is underway, nine more cardinals will lose their vote.

Then there will be 91 created by Francis, 24 by Benedict, and only 6 by John Paul.

Among those who will be eliminated from the conclave over the next eight months, are some key allies of the current pope, even some who became cardinals under his two predecessors.

They include Cardinal Sean O’Malley OFM Cap, a C9 member from the United States (turns 80 on June 29); Cardinal Luis Lacunza OAR of Panama (Feb. 24); and Cardinal Baltazar Porras of Venezuela (Oct. 10).

The number of cardinal-electors will drop back to the 120 ceiling set by Paul VI (provided Francis does not create more cardinals in the meantime) on Dec. 24 when Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, another C9 member, turns eighty.

The specter of John Paul II still looms

The last six men among the electors who were created cardinals by John Paul II could play a decisive role in the next conclave whenever that happens.

One of them, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, is a key ally of Pope Francis. But the current archbishop of Vienna is also the oldest in the group and will turn 80 in late January 2025.

The second oldest, at 78, is retired Bosnian Cardinal Vinko Puljic. He is not expected to be a force, either as a candidate or a kingmaker at a papal election.

The other four are all 75 years old or younger.

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 73, was forced to step down as archbishop of Lyon nearly four years ago after badly managing sexual abuse cases. He is not expected to have a significant voice at a conclave.

And neither is Croatian Cardinal Josip Bozanic, who retired as archbishop of Zagreb last April at age seventy-four.

But other two men who got the red hat from Saint John Paul — both in 2003 — will likely be among those whom the electors will be taking a closer look at.

Either could emerge as a compromise candidate.

They are Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, one a traditionalist Central European and the other a moderate African.

Erdő, who is only 71, has been the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest for more than 21 years.

He is a by-the-books canon lawyer who served ten years (2006-2016) as president of Conference of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) and has strong connections with many moderate-to-conservative officials in the Vatican.

The Hungarian cardinal has been careful to not to publicly criticise Pope Francis, even as he steers his own ecclesial ship in a very different direction.

He wisely chose not to attend a Mass in Rome last January to mark the first anniversary of the death of Cardinal George Pell.

Erdő was actually supposed to preside at that liturgy. But it would have put him squarely in the opposition camp, given Pell’s vicious attack against Francis in an article that was printed after he died.

Turkson, 75, is currently the chancellor of two high-level Vatican think-tanks — the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

A Rome-educated scripture scholar, he served as archbishop of Cape Coast from 1993 until 2009 when Benedict XVI made him president of the now-defunct Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

When that office was combined with several other departments in 2016 and is now called the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, he remained its head for a little more than five years.

He was “eased” out in January 2022 at age 73 and given his current position.

In any event, the Church’s cardinals are already beginning to prepare for the post-Francis era.

With binoculars in hand, Vatican watchers will be carefully looking for signs indicating which way these birds might fly.

  • Robert Mickens is La Croix International Editor.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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