Choosing the New Pope


The world’s attention turned to the Vatican last week where Pope Benedict XVI created 22 new cardinals from 13 countries—including three from the United States and Canada—placing red hats on their heads and calling them to lives of even greater love and service to the church. The event raises numerous questions of interest for evangelicals, including the pontiff’s continued emphasis on the “new evangelization.” Also of interest are the implications that such appointments have on the selection of Benedict’s replacement. In what follows, evangelical pastor and theologian, Leonardo De Chirico, explains how the new class of cardinals may influence the choice of the next Pope.  

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Opening the Pontifical Yearbook is not an easy task. This thick book of more than 2350 pages contains all sorts of information about who’s who in the Vatican and what happens there. Despite the practical problems of handling it, it is nonetheless a mine of precious information about the center of the RC Church and the Vatican city.

For example, one reads that the official titles of the Pope are the following: “Bishop of Rome”, “Vicar of Jesus Christ”, “Successor of the prince of the Apostles” (i.e. Peter), “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, “Primate of Italy”, “Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province”, “Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City”. The last title, “Servant of God’s servants”, is in stark contrast with the grandeur of the previous ones.

1. Absolute Power, with one Exception

The list of papal titles is somewhat astonishing and covers religious offices, political tasks and organizational responsibilities. He is one of the last examples of absolute sovereignty. In his person, the executive, legislative, and juridical powers are all concentrated. Until he dies, the Pope remains the Pope. The only restriction on his power is that he cannot choose his own successor. In other words, the papacy is not a family dynasty. This task is given to the College of electing cardinals, i.e. cardinals who are under 80 years old and who gather in “conclave” (from the Latin cum clave, i.e. locked up with a key) in the Sistine Chapel to vote on the new Pope.

This is not to say that the reigning Pope does not influence the vote for the election of the next one. Actually, although he will not be present (!), he has a strategic role to play. As a matter of fact, the Pope has the authority to select the new cardinals. So in choosing the new “princes” of the RC Church, he shapes the College that will vote his successor. This gives him a real, albeit indirect influence on the selection process of the next Pope. By way of analyzing the chosen members of the College (i.e. their spiritual weight and ecclesiastical provenance) it is therefore possible to paint a somewhat accurate and likely picture of who the next pope will be.

2. The New “Northren” Cardinals

On February 18th, Pope Ratzinger “created” (this is the technical verb) 22 new cardinals, although only 18 of them became part of the electing College because they are under 80. The College is then made up of 125 cardinals, a number that will decrease in a short time because some of its members will turn 80 soon and therefore will be excluded from it.

Let’s have a look at the geographical map of the College. What appears interesting is the proportion between the macro-regions. On the one hand, there are 67 Europeans (more than half of the College), and if we add the North-Americans and the only Oceanian, the number of the cardinals coming from the Northern part of the globe is 83 out of 125. On the other hand, the number of Latin American, African and Asian cardinals is only 41. Nearly two thirds of the College comes from the ancient, established, powerful churches of the West, although most of these churches are currently facing a long-term phase of decline. Only one third of the College comes from Southern churches which are younger, less traditional, perhaps poorer, but are growing in terms of practice and number of vocations to the priesthood.

Thus the College now reflects more the “older” face of the RC Church than its “new” profile. It is a College with a distinct Ratzingerian face. Does it mean that Pope Ratzinger wishes his successor to be a Northern Pope that will share his emphasis on calling the West back to the RC Church? Does it mean that the secular West will be the primary item on the next Pope’s agenda as it is in Benedict XVI’s one?

3. The Power of the Curia

The other interesting feature to consider is the role of the electing cardinals. After the creation of the 22 new ones, 44 of them now belong to the Roman Curia. In other words, they are high ranking ecclesiastical figures who live in Rome and lead various Vatican departments but do not have direct pastoral roles. They bring to the Church a more “Roman” perspective than a “catholic” (i.e. universal) one. Whereas bishops around the world have first-hand experience in leading a church even at the parish and grass-roots level, the Roman Curia has a more “political”, self-referential culture. Generally speaking, they are more able diplomats than preachers and pastors. Their expertise is more in canon law than in missiology.

Summing up these two indicators, here is a possible portrayal of the next Pope: a Northern cardinal with a distinct “Roman” soul. Perhaps the next Pope will be totally different, but at least this portrayal corresponds well to Benedict XVI’s own outlook.

Leonardo De Chirico

Rome, 20th February 2012

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. It seems as if the stage is being set. The new pope will be the false prophet which will mark the beginning of the end. Your thoughts?

  2. To me it seems quite clear that the next pope will be most probably of “Northern” (= European)origin, more precisely said I think he will be an Italian one. There are some factors which are quite favorable to such a development: 1. The last Italian pope John Paul I died in September 1978, nearly 34 years ago. It can be supposed that quite a large number of cardinals would it find appropriate to return after the Polish-German papal “intermezzo” to the century old tradition of electing an Italian candidate. 2. It is quite evident that also Benedict XVI himself favors all this by having appointed in the two last consistories 2010 and 2012 a disproportionately high number of Italian cardinals – out of altogether 46 appointees alone 17 were coming from the Apennine peninsula !
    On the whole one may get the impression on considering the cardinals created by Pope Ratzinger that he is in a certain sense counteracting a further internationalisation of the College of Cardinals begun alredy by Pius XII. The most evident examples for this “policy” is the omission of Japanese or Philippine candidates during the last two consistories (both countries are represented in the College since 1960).
    After all I do not think that the next Conclave will come that soon – Benedict XVI´s health status despite his age seems to be quite stable. In this very consequence all the considerations concerning his successor are to be postponed, probably even for the next three to five years. It only can be hoped that in the meantime there will be developments within the College of Cardinals which can be objectively considered as improvement in relation to the actual situation.

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