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Will Asia get the nod for a new red hat?

Rumors swirl about forthcoming appointments to the College of Cardinals

  • Alessandro Speciale, Vatican
  • Vatican City
  • November 30, 2011
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Rome’s at it again. Only one year after the Consistory in which pope Benedict XVI created 24 new cardinals, the rumor mill has started turning again with confident assertions that a new batch of red hats will be handed out early next year, possibly in February.

The numbers, after all, are there. By February 2012, there will be 108 voting cardinals – those who are under 80 years of age and can thus take part in a conclave and elect a new pope. This is 12 below the number of elector cardinals prescribed by Church law, 120. Look just two months further, and by April two more spots will be free.

It’s only fair, then, to wonder who’s going to receive a red hat. Even if the decision finally belongs only to the pope, it’s quite easy to make predictions, as some posts in the Church – say, archbishop of a major diocese or head of a Vatican office – leads almost automatically to becoming a cardinal.

So, assuming that 14 voting red hats will be given out early next year, it’s easy to calculate that – if the tradition will be respected – at least seven new cardinals will come from the Roman Curia, 4 of them Italians (with a fifth possible one to add).

This means that there could be seven new cardinals coming from dioceses all over the world. Here the story gets more complex.

Tradition holds that a bishop will have to wait to become cardinal until his predecessor in that see has turned 80. But this is just a tradition, and has often been waived.

Nevertheless, so far it seems that Pope Benedict is keen to stick to it as much as possible. Given that there are many Italian and European bishops who have been waiting for quite a few years, I would be surprised if there will be more than one new cardinal coming from Asia.

And most probably, he will come from the Philippines. The main Catholic country in Asia has three cardinals, but only one is still of voting age, Gaudencio Rosales of Manila, who anyway will turn 80 in August 2012. Another Filipino cardinal, Ricardo Vidal of Cebu, turned 80 in February this year.

Even if all eyes have been focused on Rosales’ successor, Luis Antonio Tagle – who has already been called a ‘papabile’ – I would guess that this time it might rather be the turn of Cebu’s Jose Palma. And not just because of the age gimmick explained above.

Vatican officials have definitely taken notice of a small bomb dropped against Tagle by the influential right-wing Italian blogger Sandro Magister. He pointed out that the new archbishop wrote one of the key chapters in a fundamental – if often criticized – history of the Second Vatican Council.  And, Magister added, this piece of news was not included in Tagle’s file presented to the Congregation of bishops when it decided his appointment.

It would be disingenuous to suppose that the bishops and scholars of the Congregation, not to mention the pope himself, didn't know this – after all, Tagle worked on the most influential and widely read history of the Council. And having participated in the project is definitely not a valid reason for withholding the red hat.

But Roman prudence – coupled with tradition – will probably lead to Tagle ‘skipping a turn’, waiting until this little storm has settled down. After all, at 54 he would be by far the Church’s youngest cardinal.

Who else could be in the running? China’s only cardinal, the pugnacious Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, turns 80 next January. His successor in Hong Kong, John Tong Hon, could become cardinal, even if the former British colony does not usually bring a red hat – it was more a personal reward from Rome for the highly esteemed Zen. The pope might even decide to try to pull a surprise coup and appoint a bishop from mainland China.

Japan is without a cardinal since 2009 and Tokyo’s archbishop, Takeo Okada, might be a suitable candidate. Tokyo, after all, has been a cardinal-diocese for decades. Korea will lose its only cardinal when Seoul’s archbishop Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk turns 80 on December 7. Thailand, too, lost its first voting red hat in 2009.

In total, there are now nine voting cardinals from Asia, three of whom will reach the retirement age in the next months.
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