(RNS) The Vatican announced Thursday (Dec. 11) that Pope Francis will name a new batch of cardinals in February, adding to the select group of churchmen who will someday gather to elect his successor.
Rome won’t reveal the names until next month, but could an American be among them?
There are a number of factors that will govern the choices, and thus the predictions:
First, there are 208 cardinals in the College of Cardinals, but at the age of 80 a cardinal is no longer allowed to vote in a conclave. That leaves 112 cardinals under the age of 80, as of now, though two more will age out in February and another two in March and April.
The customary ceiling on the number of electors today is 120 (it has changed many times over the centuries). That means that Francis could give a so-called red hat to 10 or 12 bishops.
The pope could also raise the ceiling, or ignore it, as Saint John Paul II often did during his long reign.
Other factors to keep in mind: The U.S. currently has 18 living cardinals, 11 of whom are eligible to vote. That’s about 10 percent of the total, which isn’t bad considering American Catholics represent about 6 percent of the global population of 1.2 billion Catholics.
In appointing his first group of cardinals last February, Francis surprised Vatican-watchers by overlooking many traditional dioceses in Europe and instead choosing bishops — 16 of them under 80 — from places such as Haiti and Burkina Faso, poor countries that are on the margins of ecclesiastical influence.
That signaled that Francis, an Argentine who is the first non-European pope in modern times, wants to redistribute power in the church. He has work to do on that score: As John Allen noted at Crux, two-thirds of the members of the College of Cardinals (69) still come from the Northern Hemisphere, while two-thirds of all Catholics live in the Global South — Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Another custom working against the expectation that Francis will name an American is that by tradition, the Vatican does not like to have more than two voting-age cardinals from the same diocese.
That said, Francis did not pick any Americans when he made his first batch of cardinals, and several U.S. cardinals are very close to 80.
So if he were to choose an American — or two — who might it be? Here are four options, listed in order of likelihood:
1. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles
Los Angeles is far and away the largest diocese in the U.S. church, with more than 4 million baptized members. Gomez, who turns 63 this month, is Mexican-born and, like his flock, represents the Latino future of the church. Although he hews to doctrinal orthodoxy, Gomez is increasingly outspoken on social justice issues such as immigration — a priority for Francis.
2. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago
Cupich, 65, was only appointed to Chicago in September, but he was Francis’ first major U.S. nomination and one the pope took a personal role in. Cupich is seen as much more in line with Francis’ agenda than the retired archbishop, Cardinal Francis George. George is nearly 78 so has two more years of conclave eligibility, but he is also seriously ill with cancer.
3. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta
Gregory, 67, was considered a contender for the Chicago spot, but a red hat would be a nice consolation prize. It would also make some sense: Atlanta is a fast-growing diocese, unlike shrinking dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest, and although it has never had a cardinal as archbishop it may be time. Also, Gregory is one of a handful of African-American bishops and making him a cardinal would be like, well, electing a black president.
4. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia
Chaput, 70, is widely seen as a leader of the culture warrior wing of the U.S. hierarchy, and not particularly in sync with Francis. But Chaput is hosting the church’s World Meeting of Families next September, which will serve as the main venue for Francis’ first U.S. visit. The retired archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali, turns 80 in April. On the downside, Philadelphia — like many other dioceses in the declining “Rust Belt” of Catholicism — may no longer be considered an automatic red hat as it once was.
Here is the current geographic breakdown of voting members of the College of Cardinals:
Latin America: 16
North America: 15 (11 from the U.S. and 4 from Canada)
Middle East: 2
YS/MG END GIBSON