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Pope Francis' selection of Cardinals marks shift toward Asia

September 30, 2023

Pope Francis has installed 21 new Cardinals, continuing his practice of fundamentally changing the makeup of the body that will elect his successor. The Catholic Church will be heavily influenced by Asia in the future.

close up of the cardinals sitting, holding their biretta hats in their laps
Pope Francis formally installed the new Cardinals in the VaticanImage: Andrew Medichini/dpa/picture alliance

Malaysia, South Sudan, Israel: with the promotion of 21 clergymen on Saturday, Pope Francis is expanding the number of countries represented in the College of Cardinals. In the future, the body that elects the pope — meaning all cardinals who are not yet 80 years old — will comprise men from 71 nations, more countries than ever before.

Since his first consistory, which is what a pope's appointment of new cardinals is called in church jargon, Pope Francis has remained true to his course: making the group of cardinals who will someday choose his successor more international. Many more countries are now represented in the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals with only one member each. This broadens the perspectives represented, as well as the various theological schools of thought.

This is the ninth time Pope Francis has appointed cardinals since he became the head of the Catholic Church a decade ago. He has now chosen over two-thirds of the cardinals eligible to elect his successor as Pope.

A new concept

The Pope has shelved the concept of almost automatically making the leaders of important archdioceses, and those steeped in tradition, cardinals. Thus, the archbishops of Paris, Venice, Milan and Berlin have missed out for years. In earlier decades, the archbishop of Milan could always count on the promotion from his superior in Rome. Instead, Pope Francis always chooses priests who do not conform to the cliché.

This makes it harder to predict how a future papal conclave will behave when it comes time to elect a new pope. The cardinals are now much less familiar with each other than they were previously.

In the future, 23 of those eligible for the papal conclave will come from Asia — during the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, there were only 10. That means Asia is the third-placed region, behind Europe and North America, which in comparison to their proportion of Catholic believers is overrepresented. Latin America remains underrepresented — about 42% of Catholics worldwide come from this region, but only 18% of the papal conclave cardinals live there — as does sub-Saharan Africa.

"Many more cardinals from Asia, more than a doubling," Dutch journalist Hendro Munsterman, who covers the Vatican for the Nederlands Dagblad newspaper, told DW. "This pope is looking primarily toward Asia."

Pope Francis in a wheelchair with Mongolian children in traditional outfits Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia September 1, 2023
On his visit to Mongolia in September 2023, Pope Francis praised religious freedom in the countryImage: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS


Munsterman said: "Synodality for Francis means 'anti-clericalism.' That means: For him, clerics are not better than laypersons — on the contrary, they need laypersons."

The Pope's whole way of thinking about synodality is influenced by Asia, Munsterman thinks. "He is seeking a harmonious church." Asia has made strides toward dismantling clericalism, while the Catholic Church in Africa, which is also growing, is still strongly shaped by clerical thinking. Asia, where Catholicism is a minority religion, is for Francis "truly the future of the church because in Asia harmony is sought after." Pope Francis completed a visit to Mongolia in September, where he said the Church had no political agenda, but he also called on Chinese Catholics to be "good citizens."

Munsterman also recalls the wish of the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio — as Pope Francis was known before he became pope — who wanted to become a missionary in Japan but could not for health reasons.

Europe is no longer in the focus

Asia is the ascendant continent for Francis — Europe, on the other hand, is descending, as a glance at the numbers easily shows. But Munsterman argues that there is no "de-Europeanization" of the College of Cardinals — he speaks instead of a "de-Italianization". Among the 136 people who could choose the next pope, there are currently 14 Italians — a fact that was once unimaginable. In 2013, 28 of the 115 cardinals were Italian. Munsterman again: "It is really becoming a global church, in which Italy is playing less of a role." Altogether, Europeans, who in 2013 made up more than half of the papal conclave (52%) currently only make up 39%.

Only the German presence in the event of a conclave is in a comparable state of decline to Italy. After the resignation of Pope Benedict, there were 6 Germans among the 115 cardinals who attended the deliberations and elections at the Sistine Chapel to choose the new pope in March 2013. A decade later, only 3 Germans still have the right to take part in a papal conclave — out of 136 cardinals. The global rankings underline how drastic this drop is: In 2013 Germany had the third-largest national contingent. Today it has the eleventh.

Pope Francis is seen on a giant screen after arriving for the Holy Mass at Daejeon World Cup stadium August 15, 2014 with some 50,000 attendees
In 2014, Pope Francis traveled to South KoreaImage: Reuters

German Cardinals fall out of favor

Each of these three Germans has caused concern for the Pope. The longest-serving German cardinal, Munich's 70-year-old Archbishop Reinhard Marx, was appointed by Pope Benedict in 2010. He offered Pope Francis his resignation in 2021 in response to investigations of sexual abuse in the church, but the Pope did not accept it. In 2012 he was joined by Rainer Maria Woelki, then Archbishop of Berlin and since 2014 Archbishop of Cologne. Woelki's relationship with large parts of his archdiocese is in tatters. In early 2022, the now 67-year-old offered his resignation to the Pope, but the Pope did not decide on it. Woelki can certainly be described as a problem case for this Pope.

Finally, Pope Francis made Gerhard Ludwig Müller a cardinal in 2014. At that time, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which is responsible for defending Catholic doctrine, but Francis later appointed another theologian to this position. Since then, there has been discontent. The now 75-year-old regularly comments in reactionary media outlets expressing biting criticism of the Pope's course or the state of the Catholic Church and does not shy away from conspiracy theories at relevant events. All three, it seems, are no longer relevant for the Pope, who is looking to the future of the global church.

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C