When Pope Francis announced the names of his new cardinals on Sunday, critics were quick to accuse of him of “stacking the deck”. The choices, they claimed, were aimed at influencing the outcome of the next conclave.

But there are two problems with this thesis. First, if Francis wanted to pack the papal electorate with supporters, why did he only pick five new candidates? There had been rumours that he would name 30 or so, temporarily inflating the number of cardinals able to vote in a conclave to 150 (far above the limit of 120 set by Paul VI in 1975). But after the consistory on June 28 (his fourth), Pope Francis will have named only 40 per cent of the cardinal-electors.

Second, if the Pope’s motive was to ensure the election of a like-minded successor, why are the five so difficult to place on the ecclesiastical spectrum? None of them appears to have personal links to Francis or to have aligned themselves noticeably with his pontificate.

If controlling the succession wasn’t the motive, then what was? Four of the five are the first cardinals from their respective nations. The obvious reason for the appointments is to give hitherto neglected Catholic communities a voice in the College of Cardinals.

Only one of the choices was predictable: Archbishop Juan José Omella of Barcelona, a traditional cardinalatial see. But the other four took vaticanisti by surprise. For example, Bishop Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun serves in Laos, a country that has no dioceses as it is still considered mission territory. In his apostolic vicariate of Paksé there are only 15,120 Catholics – the equivalent, say, of a large parish in Poland.

Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez is the first auxiliary bishop to receive the red hat in the post-conciliar era. Why did Francis name him a cardinal rather than his boss, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador? Largely, it seems, because Bishop Rosa Chávez was an ally of Blessed Oscar Romero, but perhaps also for his role in El Salvador’s 1992 peace process.

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