Home Christian News Pope Francis Has Stacked the Next Conclave—But Will It Matter?

Pope Francis Has Stacked the Next Conclave—But Will It Matter?

Grech will be a key player in next month’s Synod on Synodality, Francis’ project to reform the church’s culture, government and possibly even doctrine. The cardinal, who will also run the second meeting of the synod next year, is filling a role similar to that of Pope Paul VI, who, as Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, was active in the Second Vatican Council and brought it to completion after the death of Pope John XXIII.

Paul, an Italian who had served in the Vatican bureaucracy for 30 years before becoming  archbishop of Milan, was elected by a conclave in which 36% of the voting members were Italians and became the 216th Italian to occupy the seat.

Today Italy has not had a pope for 45 years, and the number of Italian voting cardinals has diminished under Francis, falling from nearly a quarter of voting members at the 2013 conclave to about 11% today, as Francis has elected arguably the most geographically variegated college of cardinals in the history of the church. Burma, Tonga, Cape Verde and Mongolia have gotten their first red hats under Francis, giving Asia a representation of nearly 18% — double the share since Francis was elected. The diverse college may select a pope who can represent the global reality of the church.

But many of these far-flung cardinals have few opportunities to mingle with other cardinals to build a constituency at the next conclave and have gained little experience in the complex practical realities of the Vatican, a prerequisite to becoming an effective pope. And Europe still holds around 38% of the conclave’s voting seats and remains a force to be reckoned with.

The European bloc may rally to push through a dark horse from the progressive movement that has unsettled the church by pushing Francis’ drive for inclusiveness to its most liberal conclusions. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, 70, the archbishop of Munich, has had an influential role in the German Synodal Path, a conference of Catholic clergy and lay people in the country that has welcomed LGBTQ Catholics and is open to the ordination of women.

But it is equally likely that conservatives will rally around such Francis critics as Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who has argued the upcoming synod could lead to schism, and convince other voting cardinals that the church needs to balance Francis’ tenure with a dose of traditionalism. They may get backing from the 19 cardinals from Africa who have a reputation of holding more conservative positions on doctrine and sexuality, while advocating strong social justice and reconciliation efforts. An African pope would likely restore the conservative ethic of John Paul and Benedict, while sending a powerful message of support to countries attempting to free themselves from the yoke of neocolonialism and help to fend off the new authoritarian incursion of Russia and China.

There are plenty of candidates, however, who would be seen as a middle path: Moderate cardinals from the church’s traditional European power center, such as French Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline or Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, 71, who has expressed vocal support for Francis while staying in sympathy with conservatives. The Luxembourg-born Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, 65, has been an advocate for Francis’ synodal vision while drawing the line at Germany’s liberal propositions.

As many cardinals filter into Rome over the next days and weeks for the Synod on Synodality, the question of the next pope will no doubt be discussed in the formal and informal small groups of Spanish, French, Italian and English speakers from around the globe. Those from the church’s peripheries will have the chance to get acquainted with their Western counterparts, talk about their concerns and form alliances, cementing their hopes and bets on who will lead them next — or unsettling the picture once again.

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