The pope’s new cardinals could perpetuate the system, not upend it

The pope’s new cardinals could perpetuate the system, not upend it

ROME — “Throw the bums out” is a well-recognized instinct in politics, often fueled by cycles of scandal and corruption or simply a perception that the same cast of characters has been in power for too long.

In the 1990s, for instance, the desire to shake things up led to the adoption of term limits in 15 American states, usually due to popular referenda or ballot initiatives. Legislators in those states now are compelled to step down after a fixed period, often six to eight years, ensuring a steady infusion of new faces.

Pope Francis appears driven by that same anti-establishment instinct with the College of Cardinals, the body of senior prelates that sets the tone for leadership in the Church and also enjoys the exclusive right to elect the next pope.


The pope announced a lineup of 15 new voting-age cardinals on Jan. 4, and it’s clear he’s changing the mix. The experience of American term limits, however, suggests Francis may need to be attentive to the law of unintended consequences, to avoid inadvertently strengthening the very bureaucracy he’s trying to upend.

Of 15 new cardinals announced by the pontiff, only one is a Vatican official, and just five come from Europe. There’s also no new cardinal from the United States.

Three of the new Princes of the Church come from nations that have never before had a cardinal — Myanmar, Cape Verde, and Tonga. Even within countries long accustomed to cardinals, Francis skipped the usual centers of power to lift up eminences in unexpected places.


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