28 August 2022

House of Card(inal)s: The Art of Conclave Mathematics

Whether or not Francis resigns, as is rumoured he might, his Pontificate is in its waning days. He is 85, the same age as Benedict when he resigned.

From The Pillar

By Brendan Hodge

Cardinals from around the world will be gathered in Rome this weekend for a consistory, a formal meeting of the College of Cardinals. Pope Francis will also formally add 20 additional members to the college, 16 of them are younger than 80, and thus able to vote in a conclave should the pope resign or die.

Nine years and eight consistories into his papacy, Pope Francis has made his mark on the College of Cardinals. Francis has appointed enough voting-age cardinals to form a clear majority in any future conclave, and he is within three cardinals of having appointed the two-thirds needed to select a new pope.

Only nine cardinals from Pope St. John Paul II's 27-year pontificate are still of voting age, and almost half of Benedict XVI's appointees have died or turned 80.

But turnover is the norm in the College of Cardinals, and the next conclave will likely be typical of recent trends — 90% of the cardinals at the conclave which elected John Paul II had been appointed by Pope St. Paul VI.

So what would a conclave look like if it were called soon?

The Pillar looks at the numbers.

Credit: Shutterstock

If a papal conclave were called next week, the assembly of cardinals would be shaped principally by the appointments of Pope Francis.

Sixty-four percent of cardinal electors at a hypothetical August 2022 conclave — 85 out of 132 electors — would be appointees of Pope Francis, just 2% short of the two-thirds majority necessary to elect a pope.

If the cardinals appointed by Pope Francis voted as a bloc, they would need just three other cardinal electors to join them in order to select a new pontiff.

Editors’ note: This analysis assumes that Cardinal Angelo Becciu would participate in a conclave. A Francis-appointed cardinal whose cardinalate privileges are currently suspended while he stands trial, Becciu told Italian media this week that Pope Francis has invited him to the consistory and intends to restore his privileges as a cardinal. The Vatican confirmed that Becciu will be in attendance. Whether Becciu will participate in any future conclave finally depends on the decision of the cardinal camerlengo, currently Cardinal Kevin Farrell.

Because of a rule set by Pope Paul VI - that cardinals must be younger than 80 to vote in a conclave - new cardinals will age out of the voting pool each year.

Over the next year, two of the nine remaining cardinal electors appointed by John Paul II will turn 80 years old.

So will eight appointed by Benedict XVI, and one appointed by Francis.

(It is also entirely possible that one or more cardinals under the age of 80 will die, but since the hour of death is known only to God this analysis does not attempt to predict it.)

The 11 cardinals due to turn 80 in the next year will bring the total number of cardinal electors to 121 by August 28th, 2023.

At that point, 84 of the 121 voting cardinals would be men appointed by Francis, 69% of a conclave’s total electors.

Given his past, pre-pandemic record of consistories, it seems likely that Francis will name more new cardinals in the summer or fall of 2023.

If Francis continues to appoint new cardinals at the rate that he has in the first nine years of his papacy, his appointees will make up 81% of voting age cardinals by August of 2025 and 85% five years from now, in 2027.

By August of 2027 only four cardinals appointed by John Paul II will still be eligible to vote: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Cape Coast, Cardinal Josip Bozanic of Zagreb, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, and Cardina Peterl Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest.

Cardinal Erdo is the youngest of the four, and will remain young enough to vote in a papal conclave as late as 2032.

The number of living cardinals older than 80 has increased considerably since 1971, when Pope Paul VI instituted the age limit for electors.

As of now, there are 65 cardinals who were of voting age when appointed but are now over 80, though still living.

Among the 41 living cardinal electors appointed by John Paul II, only nine are still of voting age, while 32 are now over 80. And while only 13 of the cardinal electors appointed by Benedict XVI have died, 23 are now too old to participate in a conclave.

Commentators make sport and headlines of speculation about what the composition of the college of cardinals might mean for the next conclave.

But past examples suggest that may be hard to predict based simply on numbers.

All three of the last papal conclaves had majorities appointed by the previous pope. In the case of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, those majorities were massive.

Editors’ note: Since Pope John Paul I did not appoint cardinals in his 33-day pontificate, we are considering Pope St. Paul VI as the mathematically relevant predecessor of John Paul II. We think JPI will understand.

Ninety percent of the cardinals in the conclave which elected John Paul II had been appointed by Paul VI.

After John Paul II’s 27-year pontificate, 97% of the cardinals who gathered to elect Benedict XVI had been appointed by John Paul II.

Even after Benedict’s pontificate of fewer than eight years, 58% of the cardinals who gathered at the conclave which elected Francis had been appointed by Benedict.

While any future conclave will consist mostly cardinals appointed by Francis, that fact will not make it significantly different from recent prior conclaves.

Indeed, even if Francis remains pope for another five years, the share of Francis-appointed cardinals as the next conclave will still be less than the percentage of Paul VI cardinals at the 1978 conclave that elected John Paul II.

Added to the fact that many of Francis’s appointments have gone to cardinals “from the peripheries,” the direction of a future conclave may be very difficult to predict.

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