A Vatican ObserverIs Pope Francis setting up the next Conclave?

CNA 5617e424d879c 75429 Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines at a press briefing at the Holy See Press Office during the Synod of Bishops on October 9, 2015. -

At the end of the last week, Pope Francis elevated cardinals Luis Antonio Tagle and Beniamino Stella to the Order of Cardinal Bishops – the highest rank of dignity within the College of Cardinals – putting them on par with the Cardinals eligible for the office of Dean of the College. He also appointed the archbishop Ilson Montanari as vice Camerlengo. These decisions could have an impact on the next conclave.

Pope Francis, however, is not likely to set up the election of his successor according to traditional criteria.

Cardinal Tagle is widely considered to be among the  papabili. Many observers saw Pope Francis' decision to tap him for the top spot at the the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples as a sort of investiture. Pope Francis now decided to "co-opt" Cardinal Tagle – a technical term - into the order of Cardinal-bishops.

With some exceptions, Cardinals are all archbishops, and  are divided into three Orders, lowest to highest: Cardinal Deacons, CardinalPriests, and Cardinal Bishops. These three orders mirror the duties that Cardinal had in the ancient Church. Cardinal Bishops were the leaders of Rome's suburbicarian dioceses (the jurisdictions immediately surrounding Rome): Ostia – which has gone to the Dean of the College of Cardinals for nearly a thousand years; Palestrina; Albano; Velletri-Segni; Porto-Santa Rufina; Tusculum (Frascati); Sabina-Poggio Mirteto).

The Dean of the College of Cardinals is elected from among the Cardinal Bishops. The suburbicarian dioceses are seven and Cardinals-bishops are six, since the Dean joins his title to that of Ostia.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals is essential.

When the See of Rome is vacant, the Dean of the College leads the pre-conclave meetings and then the Conclave itself. If the Dean is older than 80 and therefore excluded from participation, the vice Dean will lead the Conclave. If the vice Dean is older than 80, the senior Cardinal Bishop will lead the Conclave. This happened in 2013 conclave: both the Dean – Cardinal Angelo Sodano – and the vice Dean – Cardinal Roger Etchegaray – were beyond 80 and unable to participate.

The expansion of the order of Cardinal Bishops was already under discussion. Since Cardinals are living longer, a Conclave without any Cardinal Bishop is not beyond the realm of possibility.

There was talk of creating the office of the Cardinal Bishop-emeritus in order to resolve the issue. Since Cardinal Bishops had been, until Paul VI's reform, the bishops of the suburbicarian diocese, they could be considered emeritus when they turned 75, as the regular bishops.

Following this rationale, the Pope could even double the number of Cardinal Bishops in the College of Cardinals without untethering them from their traditional link with the diocese of Rome.

Pope Francis opted for a different way.

He elevated some Cardinals in rank and put their titular sees on par with those of the Cardinal Bishops. The Pope did so also with Cardinal Tagle. This looked to many observers like further confirmation of Francis's preference for Cardinal Tagle as his successor. It need not necessarily be taken that way, though.

Among the new Cardinals co-opted into the ranks of the Cardinal Bishops in June 2018, there was also Cardinal Fernando Filoni, then prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Pope Francis likely thought that the Congregation must be led by a Cardinal Bishop, considering that Propaganda Fide is going to be the first among Curia dicasteries in the new disposition.

For this reason, the Pope wanted to add Cardinal Tagle among the Cardinal Bishops – and it is almost entirely a functional rationale, which also gives a glimpse of the lines along which the Curia reform has been thought out.

Cardinal Beniamino Stella got the rank of Cardinal-bishop differently: he was assigned the See of Porto-Santa Rufina, which belonged to Cardinal Roger Etchegaray until the Frenchman passed away in September 2019.

Cardinal Stella thus traditionally joins the order of Cardinal Bishops. His elevation in rank is also a particular sign of appreciation by Pope Francis. Cardinal Stella is considered one of the most influential of Pope Francis's advisers.

Pope Francis's pick for the vice Camerlengo is surprising.

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The Pope appointed Archbishop Ilson Montanari for the post. Archbishop Montanari is the Secretary of the Congregation of Bishops, be he is also the Secretary of the Conclave. So, in case of a conclave, some issues might arise.

The Camerlengo chairs the Apostolic Camera – Chamber – and manages the Church's temporal goods during sede vacante. The Camerlengo is a Cardinal, and so he takes part in the Conclave. During that period, he cannot lead the Apostolic Camera. During the Conclave, the vice Camerlengo takes over the responsibility of the management of the temporal goods.

In this particular case, the vice Camerlengo will be in the Conclave, too. So, who will lead the Apostolic Camera during the Conclave?

It is not a minor detail, and the fact that it appears to have been overlooked is possibly revealing: Pope Francis, in the end, appoints the people he trusts. Practical-institutional issues can be addressed afterward.

Pope Francis, in other words, does not think of the institution per se. He mostly thinks of an institution as tied to its leader and an extension of the leader's personality. Pope Francis therefore often seems to understand his role as that of the guarantor of the institution thus conceived. He articulated this vision somewhat painstakingly, when he outlined his reform vision in his Christmas addresses to the Roman Curia. He did so when he opened the Vatican judicial year, despite investigations into the Financial Intelligence Authority and Secretariat of State. He also did so again, when he decided to fire all the people involved in the FIA/State investigation, though there were still no judgments or even formal charges against the people he dismissed.

Pope Francis has no filters, and he likes to make decisions himself. It is unlikely that the Pope wants to design a successor. He knows that the Church has no dynasties and that he cannot be sure that everything will go according to his plans. The Pope's most trusted circles are not among cardinals. Those who are, must rely on a more prominent structure and an institution that goes beyond centuries.

Pope Francis's strategy cannot be, in the end, that of designating a successor or burning an enemy. Rather, Francis instead aims at expanding the electoral base. The more cardinals of his line there are, the more likely it is that his legacy will be carried forward.

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Pope Francis's legacy, by the way, is political and geopolitical: mostly based on practical issues. Francis's guiding rationale is that the Pope can be an influential guarantor able to give voice to the poor and the marginalized. The Pope dialogues with governments and seeks to create new political and economic models. This is not a papacy that inspires ideas, nor is it an institution capable of providing frameworks beyond the practical issues.

A little hint of this rationale came at the end of Pope Francis' Urbi et orbi Easter message. The Pope concluded the message saying, off script: "These are some thoughts of mine that I wanted to share." This sentence somehow de-institutionalized that moment.

With Pope Francis, the institution is dismantled to change its profile. Pope Francis often spoke about the need for a conversion of the souls. This is how he pushes for the conversion: to dismantle to rebuild, or at least to leave the reconstruction to people he trusts.

From this perspective, the choice to co-opt Cardinal Tagle in the Order of Cardinal Bishops does not mean that the Pope is setting up Tagle as a candidate for his succession, nor that the Pope is burning his eventual candidacy. It merely means that the Pope is shaping the institution his way. There is no history or tradition to be preserved.

There is instead a new Church to be created in the Pope's image.

This is how the next Conclave is being set up: It will be a different kind of Conclave, in which none of the traditional keys to understanding papal electoral dynamics will be valid.

The issue must be furtherly explored.

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