Le Rouge et Le Noir


The next papal election will be like those of ’78 … or deadlocked. Part IV of a series.

By John Trungove

In the days of the captivity of Pope Pius VII in Napoleonic France (1812−14), most of the cardinals of the day were also the unwilling guests of the Emperor.

Those who cooperated with Napoleon were allowed some privileges. Papal Secretary of State Ercole Cardinal Consalvi and others who resisted pressure from the Emperor and remained loyal to the prisoner at Fontainebleau were often confined and mistreated. These became known as the “black” cardinals, while their more compliant brethren were called “red” cardinals and enjoyed many privileges at the Imperial Court.

In this article, in which I analyse the make-up of the present College of Cardinals, I will apply these same labels: “red” to the liberals and “black” to the conservatives, though for the sake of convenience.  Yet the labels have a certain suitability.

Blacks and reds.

There are two “orientations” within the College. There are those who adhere to the philosophy and sentiment of the previous two Popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – and there are those who support a departure from the Wojtyła-Ratzinger line. If “red” is perhaps more apt for Cardinals willing to accommodate the ways of the modern world, then “black” seems right for those more concerned to critique modernity and to uphold traditional teaching.

Merely because Pope Francis appears to favour those with a “red” agenda, particularly in some national churches, such those of the United States, Germany, Italy and Belgium, it does not follow necessarily that he wishes to exclude all “black” churchmen from the College of Cardinals. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as it happened, both made Cardinals of bishops who were either relatively liberal or overtly so. Francis has done the same with conservative bishops, normally those from far-flung places who meet his requirements of engaging with the poor and marginalised. It would appear that openly challenging Pope Francis is the only sure way of avoiding a red hat.

Although it is often difficult to categorise a cardinal, particularly because many are careful to avoid any form of label, we can confidently say that, for every two supposedly liberal cardinals created since 2013, there is still a third who is actually conservative. This normally escapes the notice of the observers who see prominent liberals promoted in the American church, while forgetting that leaders in the Asian and African countries maintain their orthodoxy concurrently with exercising the option for the poor promoted by Pope Francis. It is not orthodoxy or conservative beliefs that annoy the Pope, who often affirms some doctrinal positions, most notably Church teaching on abortion. What the Pope has no time for is resistance to his program of “reforming” the Church and the Curia or a failure in a prelate to accommodate the “preferential option for the poor” and other papally preferred pastoral imperatives.


With two conclaves in the last thirteen years, as well as much media attention to the cardinal electors, it is possible to form some idea of the leanings of many members of the Sacred College. The task becomes easier in the case of some, when their names are associated with controversial questions such as those arising from the meetings of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 on the Family. However, even those individuals may need to be re-assessed from time to time, depending upon their responses to different issues arising. Some cardinals, especially those in the Vatican diplomatic corps, are even harder to pin down.

For now, because of the controversy around the issue of allowing communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, it is primarily the shadow of Amoris Laetitia (the document resulting from the Synods on The Family) hangs over the next conclave. To a lesser extent, the recent crisis concerning clerical sexual abuse and its handling by many bishops may affect the attitude of uninvolved Cardinals, particularly if there are any more high profile names revealed in current or future investigations.

No one has the capacity of resources to conduct exhaustive research into each and every Cardinal, no matter what certain conservative vigilantes behind the so-called Red Hat Report may presume.  Nevertheless, as I suggested in my previous article, Cardinals would do well to get to know their own brethren fully before entrusting anyone with their votes in a future Conclave.

To return to my historical analogy, if those Cardinals at Napoleon’s Court who cooperated with the secular power earned the label of “red” Cardinals, my approach in this article is to apply the same tag to those members of the current College of Cardinals who seek to conform themselves to the modern world, against the advice of St Paul in Romans 12:2. In this manner, I have lumped together all of the progressive currents within the modern Church, whether the Cardinals involved are truly liberals, or seek to vary settled and ancient teachings, or merely wish to cozy up to the modern world in the futile hope of riding the dragon.

Of 124 cardinal electors as at November 2018 there are over 50 “red” cardinals compared with around 60 “black”, with another dozen or more too hard to call.

The count

A thorough but far from complete analysis of the 124 cardinal electors as at November 2018 shows that there are over 50 “red” cardinals compared with around 60 “black”, with another dozen or more too hard to call. There are still 65 cardinals eligible to vote who participated in the 2013 conclave. Of these, 15 fall into the red category, against 46 black and 4 too hard to call. There is no question that Cardinal Bergoglio was supported in the 2013 conclave by a very broad coalition of cardinals!

There was once an adage that a “fat pope” is followed by a “thin pope” and vice-versa. This meant that a change of direction, whether subtle or significant, was in the mind of Cardinal electors when choosing a new Pope. The Conclave of 2005 proved an exception to the rule but who is to suggest that another Conclave may not return to the old way? Clearly that is what those hankering for a return to the days of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI would prefer, even if it means keeping clerical heads down in the meantime.

The ’78s

If recent disputes or the perceived performance of Pope Francis have polarised opinion within the Sacred College, then the next conclave may well mirror the two of 1978. There are more than enough conservative cardinals to veto any obvious liberal candidate but with over 50 liberal cardinals, no conservative candidate is going to muster a sufficient majority while a two-thirds majority is still required. History and reason shows that the conclave would look for a compromise candidate long before the requirement for election defaulted to a simple absolute majority. In the latter event, a conservative candidate could still be elected but the many days of black smoke that this would entail would not be seen in a positive light by the world at large. Whether this is a bad thing is quite another question!

What this analysis suggests is that neither anyone like Cardinal Scola, the reputed candidate of the conservatives in 2013, nor any leading liberal, have any chance of being elected to succeed Francis. Having failed to muster a majority in 2013, Scola is unlikely to be a serious candidate again, even if his age were not a factor in itself (he turns 77 in November). Observers will no doubt seek to identify a nominally conservative candidate, close to the marginalised in spirit and action, and thus seeming to echo the requirements of Bergoglio’s life mission. Someone with these qualifications would appear to stand the best chance of election. Such a candidate is not easily identified and would be quite likely to remain under the radar of the western and liberal-oriented media.


There is one further consideration that it would be best not to overlook. Ten cardinals reach the age of eighty in 2019, followed by another four in 2020. It is therefore quite likely that there will be another consistory for the creation of cardinals in around June 2019. This would be yet another opportunity for Francis to strengthen the number of his allies among future papal electors.

What could change matters even more would be an expansion of the voting membership of the Sacred College to 140 before the next consistory. It was reported in 2016 that Pope Francis had requested a document on the implications of such a proposal. Whether such a desperate step will be undertaken in the setting of the current abuse crisis in the Church is quite another matter.


With a dramatic change in the numbers, notionally to accommodate a greater distribution of bishops from around the world, the prospect of relative parity between the “reds” and the “blacks” becomes more likely. Even the disqualification of more black cardinals than red, due to the inevitable march of the calendar, operates in this direction. In this event, the likelihood of a deadlocked future conclave would be alarmingly high.



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