Pope John Paul II appointed 31 new cardinals on Sunday. Just about every news outlet in the world is united on two certainties about these new princes of the Catholic Church: They are all conservative, and they were named by the pope as part of his supposed plan to guarantee a conservative successor. The common wisdom is wrong on both counts. Not one of the new cardinals can qualify as a conservative. But even more unexamined is that the reforms of John Paul II all but guarantee that the next pontiff will be a progressive.
Very few traditions of the Church have been left untrampled in the 25 years of this papacy. Of ultimate significance will be John Paul II’s uprooting of the 800-year-old mechanics for electing popes. Since 1179, at least two-thirds of the votes of the college of cardinals were needed to elect a new pope. In 1996, John Paul II lowered this requirement to a less definitive absolute majority, or 50 percent-plus-one vote. This innovation to papal elections is significant because the requirement for a two-thirds majority was designed to protect tradition.
At various times in history, it has been conceivable that a heterodox candidate could gain a majority, but it would be unlikely that two-thirds of all cardinals would ever vote for a revolutionary. Also in the past, cardinals had to live in primitive quarters during papal conclaves, an uncomfortable situation that was intended to force speedy votes that would prevent radicals from holding out to get their way. John Paul II has built a luxury hotel to house the cardinals for the next election.
It is an old Roman saying that no one is more conservative than a retired cardinal. The practical basis for this axiom is a history of hundreds of years of old cardinals voting for popes more faithful to tradition than those the same cardinals supported when they were younger. The logic behind the customary change in behavior is obvious. At the prime of a cleric’s career, it is easier to climb the hierarchical ladder by playing politics and backing popular trends of the day than by standing firm to dogmas promulgated by men long-dead. Upon retirement, when there are no more honors or offices left to gain, and when old men are looking mortality in the face, many cardinals appreciate anew the need to protect the institution and time-proven traditions. In 1970, Pope Paul VI razed this rampart of conservatism by prohibiting cardinals 80 years old or older from voting for pope.
For a cardinal to be considered a conservative, the obvious minimal requirement is that he be congruous with the 2,000-year history of Church doctrine. The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 made an explicit break from the past. All of the prelates elevated to the cardinalate on Sunday are members of the Vatican II generation, and swear allegiance to that revolution — which coincided with the high point of the secular liberal ascendancy.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the second most powerful Vatican official, was a radical leftist theologian during the council but is now considered the most conservative of the cardinals. His Eminence has admitted that he has not moved to the right in four decades, but that the world has moved so far to the left that even a progressive of his conviction looks traditional. The same goes for all of the cardinals John Paul II has appointed, except that they are even more liberal that Cardinal Ratzinger. It is this college that will pick the next pope.
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