10 January 2014, The Tablet

Is the role of cardinal an anachronism?

by Michael Walsh

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.

What do you think?


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User comments (5)

Comment by: Ann Lardeur
Posted: 15/01/2014 13:18:57

The title "Cardinal" makes sense in its original meaning as a hinge. e.g. as in cardinal virtues. Therefore the anachronistic rank of Prince of the Church should be abandoned. Being a hinge is a task, a special ministry, and not an honour.

Comment by: Christopher McElhinney
Posted: 13/01/2014 23:34:22

I agree with Michael Walsh. Scrap the whole business. What is most needed is the setup of appropriate avenues for dialogue and discussion where laity are given a greater voice re Church governance etc. It requires that hierarchy, clergy, religious and laity (through a synodical process to be determined) be able to assemble regularly, to listen, discuss, express, and have input into the life of the Church together. The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium has it this way:
(The laity) “are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. ..When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. ..A great many wonderful things are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders: in the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders. The latter, on the other hand, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfil its mission for the life of the world”.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 13/01/2014 09:42:21

@ Michael Knowles: The real danger is that we are being seen as just another NGO. But we are the salt of the earth, and this message is not reaching our young people. Read "Gaudium et Spes". If we truly live that, we will move ourselves to a place where the Spirit blows.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 12/01/2014 22:19:09

Not true, there was indeed a British voice in the 2013 conclave, that of Card. Murphy-O'Connor, who by all reports also made use of his voice. There was no British vote due to the seemly absence of Card. O'Brien.
The suggestion you make would increase the conclave to well over one thousand souls even if continuing to respect the age-limit of eighty. One thing the excellent Tablet reporting of the recent conclave convinced me of: The electors truly and effectively conferred. The Holy Spirit was allowed to prevail, and a consensus was soon arrived at. This reflected their manageable number. A conclave of over a thousand (over twothousand with auxiliaries and abbots) would be a babel necessarily clueless as to common sentiment. Long live the College of Cardinals.

Comment by: Alan Whelan
Posted: 12/01/2014 16:02:14

First, let me congratulate a great priest and a wonderful pastoral archbishop and church leader on his appointment as cardinal.

I found Michael's blog interesting but I disagree with its conclusions. I would like to see a more representative college of cardinals and less pomp. Major archdioceses should automatically carry the title and it's vote at conclaves.

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