Pope Picks New Cardinals

Pope Francis recently announced the appointment of 17 new cardinals (here). Religious journalists are reading the tea leaves (here, here).

They are pleased that Americans got 3 of the new slots. Many are from the developing world. Formerly, cardinals were predominantly Italian. While Pope Francis did appoint an Italian, he is ineligible to vote for the next pope, since he is beyond the age limit of 80.

Popes are elected officials. But any resemblance to a democratic process is superficial. The laity, by far the largest stakeholder in the election, has absolutely no say in the matter. In the very early days of the church, the laity had veto power. But this didn’t last very long. Royalty fared far better. For centuries, royalty held veto power over the choice of a pope, and a great deal of influence over his selection. But that ended long ago. Today, the election is solely in the hands of (up to) 120 cardinals.

Perhaps a closer analogue is a corporate board of directors. Here too a small number of electors are selected by a CEO and serve at his discretion. But the analogy fails in several ways. First, board members generally come from outside the corporation; they are supposed to bring a fresh perspective. But cardinals have spent their entire working life inside the Church, and conformity is prerequisite. In addition to electing a new CEO, a board of directors is charged with supervising the operations and plans of the organization. The board not only consults on policy, it has the power to remove the CEO from office. Furthermore, the board is subject to the approval of the shareholders/stakeholders. But Catholic stakeholders have no say in the selection of the cardinals, nor can they remove them from office. Furthermore, cardinals cannot remove a pope from office. Once the pope is elected, he becomes a total autocrat, accountable only to God – who, in the past, had no apparent problems with corrupt and even criminal popes.

While there is some semblance of a meritocracy in the promotion of priests to bishops, none is apparent in the promotion of bishops to cardinals. It is not even clear what the criteria should be. Cardinals are not the equivalent of .300 hitters in baseball, or top salesmen, or scriptural experts, or whizzes at management, spirituality, or pastoralism. While there is an increasing emphasis on PR skills, their paramount skill is in bureaucracy and currying favor with the pope.

Election of a pope requires a two-thirds majority, just like overriding a presidential veto. It is intrinsically a very conservative process, resistant to change and innovation. Pope Francis, in office nearly four years, has appointed 44 cardinals. A total of 80 votes are needed to guarantee election. The longer a pope survives, the greater his ability to stack the deck and determine the future pope and policy. The papal election process makes gerrymandering look like child’s play. It’s a hell of a way for the Holy Ghost to choose his representative.

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