Could One of These Men Accede to the Throne of Saint Peter?
Pope Francis’s failing health and questions about his possible resignation have observers looking to the leading princes.
A Filipino cardinal known for riding public transit and making YouTube videos of himself singing and playing guitar is one of the leading contenders to follow Pope Francis, whose poor health is raising questions over his tenure as head of the Catholic church.
Other prospects include a more daring liberal, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state; a Hungarian, Peter Cardinal Erdo, who is frontrunner in the conservative camp; and a compromise candidate, Matteo Cardinal Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna.
These names are moving to the van as Francis’s health is failing visibly. Last week he canceled a trip that had been scheduled for July to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This has raised questions about who will replace him on the Throne of Saint Peter.
His Holiness seems to sense that the end of his papacy is nigh. This month he announced the creation of 21 new cardinals. It is apparently an effort to secure his legacy. He will leave behind several frontrunners in the case of his decease or — as recent reports have suggested — resignation.
Luis Cardinal Tagle, the Manila-born proprefect of the Dicastery of Evangelization sometimes characterized as “the Filipino Francis,” will be the bookmakers’ favorite.
His Eminence has a reputation for having a common touch, preferring public transit and making YouTube videos of himself singing and playing guitar. His rhetoric in defense of Catholic doctrine — for example, when opposing the 2012 repeal of the Philippines’ ban on contraception — has emphasized “dialogue” rather than authoritative statements.
Already judged “papabile” at the 2013 conclave that elected Francis, His Eminence has amassed institutional power in the Church, serving as the head of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of Catholic charities, and as a member of the Vatican bank.
The pope also made him a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship after the ouster of its former prefect, Robert Cardinal Sarah, who clashed with His Holiness publicly over the place of the traditional liturgy in the modern Church.
A more daring liberal candidate is Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state. His Eminence has been an advocate for maximally progressive interpretations of the Francis pontificate’s signature initiatives, including a bold reading of Amoris Laetitia, an encyclical that some liberals claim relaxes the Church’s strictures on divorce and sexual morality.
Cardinal Parolin’s position has been compromised by the collapse of the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Red China. His Eminence engineered a reconciliation with the Chinese Communist Party, which until 2018 maintained a separate Catholic hierarchy under its own control.
The agreement allowed the party veto power over the Vatican’s episcopal candidates, which provoked strident criticism from the underground Catholic Church in China and its advocates, including Hong Kong’s Joseph Cardinal Zen. Cardinal Zen has since been charged with instigating sedition against the government, and is out on bail — hardly the desired outcome of the Church’s new Ostpolitik.
Vatican watchers name a Hungarian, Peter Cardinal Erdo, as the frontrunner of the conservative party. The chief organizer of the synod that produced Amoris Laetitia, he distanced himself from its more controversial passages, pinning the responsibility for them on the synod’s special secretary, Archbishop Bruno Forte. Although Hungary’s preeminent churchman, Cardinal Erdo does not have the institutional power of other papabili, and is a dark horse candidate.
A compromise candidate may be found in Matteo Cardinal Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian bishops’ conference. His Eminence is closely involved in one of the pope’s favorite movements within the church, the Community of Sant’Egidio, which emphasizes social justice and the “accompaniment” of Catholics living in contravention of the Church’s moral law.
Further, Cardinal Zuppi has contributed to books affirming the place of LGBT people in the Catholic Church, including the introduction to the Italian edition of Building Bridges, a book on ministry to LGBT people by a progressive Jesuit, Father James Martin.
Cardinal Zuppi may prove acceptable to conservatives as well because of his unlikely affinity for the traditional Latin Mass. He has celebrated the older form of the liturgy himself since 2014. Following Francis’s 2021 controversial motu proprio decree Traditionis Custodes, which was used by many bishops to restrict the traditional Mass, Cardinal Zuppi issued his own decree allowing its use to continue as before in his own archdiocese.
Following Francis’s divisive tenure, a unity candidate like Cardinal Zuppi may be the balm the princes of the Church seek; but the conclave in the wake of Francis’s departure from the Chair of Peter may hold surprises.
In mid-March, an open letter signed pseudonymously by one “Demos,” Greek for “the people,” circulated among cardinals and Vatican officials. It criticized the current papacy’s administration of the church’s temporal and spiritual affairs, noting legal and financial irregularities in the Vatican and doctrinal confusion among the hierarchy and the faithful.
Referring to the current pontificate as “a disaster, a catastrophe,” Demos — whom Italian journalist and Vatican expert Sandro Magister refers to as “a master of the subject” — notes, “Previously it was: ‘Roma locuta. Causa finita est.’ Today it is: ‘Roma loquitur. Confusio augetur.’”
Looking forward, Demos observes, “The College of Cardinals has been weakened by eccentric nominations and has not been reconvened [since 2014]. Many Cardinals are unknown to one another, adding a new dimension of unpredictability to the next conclave.”