Blogs Blogs > Is the role of cardinal an anachronism?

10 January 2014 | by Michael Walsh

Is the role of cardinal an anachronism?

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There was no British voice in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. The Cardinal-Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O’Brien, who stepped down following allegations against him of sexual misconduct, quite properly opted out [he resigned rights and privileges of being a cardinal on 20 March 2015]. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, though in Rome at the time, was too old to cast a vote.

Those who felt put out by this apparent downgrading of the Church in this island, will now be mollified. After almost five years in Westminster, Vincent Nichols is to be made a cardinal, Pope Francis announced today. Being made a cardinal is rather like being elevated to the House of Lords. Indeed, they are even rather grander than peers because in internationally accepted protocol they rank just below princes of royal blood. Consequently they are surrounded by great deference and much flummery, just the sort of things Pope Francis inveighs against.

Hence, as the latest “honours list” emerges from the Vatican, I can’t help thinking that it is about time someone asked what cardinals are for. In principle there are three ranks of cardinals: bishops, priests and deacons – a division which is a throwback to the Middle Ages. Now, sacramentally, they are all, or almost all (with some recent exceptions), bishops. In the Middle Ages, cardinals became agitated for a time because their office carried no sacramental seal, but they got over that by regarding themselves as half of the papacy, and so laying hold of half the papal income. Their power was eventually broken by Pope Sixtus V (r1585-90), who reorganised his court so that the “college” of cardinals could no longer effectively work as a single body. To give them something to do, put them in command of separate departments, the Roman “congregations” that still operate today.

Even by that time, however, cardinals were sometimes in charge of dioceses. Jesuit journalist Tom Reese, who has done the maths, says that in the conclave that elected Francis last spring 35 per cent of electors were curial cardinals, Benedict XVI having favoured the curia in his cardinatial appointments, whereas only 24 per cent were of the curia in the 2005 conclave that chose Benedict. That doesn’t quite mean that 65 per cent in one instance and 76 per cent in the other were diocesan bishops, because some of them had already retired but still enjoyed voting rights, but it does mean that the vast majority were, or had been, diocesan ordinaries. It is they, diocesan ordinaries, who should be electing popes, not Vatican office-holders. Cardinals have been electing popes since the Lateran Synod decreed it should be so in 1059. But that was when the people of Rome still claimed the right to choose their bishop, and the synod’s decision was Pope Nicholas II’s ploy to break the power of the Roman nobility and their militia. As so often in the Church, we are maintaining a structure that made sense in some distant age but no longer does so. Cardinals, as cardinals, have no real power except once in a lifetime to elect a pope and it is high time the office was abolished. Hence I’m against the idea of a woman cardinal – a case of flummery without power. But then I’m against anyone being appointed to this anachronistic title.

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