German Jesuit Priest Named Cardinal

By James Martin, S.J.
America Magazine
January 6, 2012

Included among the names of cardinal-designates this morning in the Vatican's press release are some expected names, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. But there is a surprise: Fr. Karl Joseph Becker, SJ. Fr. Becker is a German Jesuit priest and professor emeritus of dogmatic theology of the Jesuits' Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Normally the pope names (or, technically, "creates") cardinals from the ranks of bishops and archbishops (as with Archbishop Dolan) and these men are often heads of the larger archdioceses. But occasionally the pope names a priest, to honor the man for his life's work. (Normally they are over 80, not named a bishop so as to spare them from the sacramental duties of a bishop, and are ineligible to vote in a papal conclave.) Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, the American Jesuit theologian, was a recent example. (An interview with Cardinal Dulles a few months before the consistory, including his thoughts on becoming a cardinal, is here.)

A note about accepting ecclesiastical honors in the Society of Jesus. At the close of their formation, a Jesuit will make his "Final Vows." (This comes after their "First Vows" made at the end of their novitiate.) Many Jesuits will profess four vows: poverty, chastity and obedience and a special vow of obedience to the pope "with regard to missions." Some will profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. We also make five separate "promises": First, we promise never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitutions about poverty--unless to make it "more strict." Second, we promise never to "strive or ambition" for any dignity in the church, like becoming a bishop. Third, never to "strive or ambition" for any high office in the Jesuits. Fourth, if we find out that someone is striving for these things, we are to "communicate his name" to the Society. (All these were signs of Ignatius wanting to root out among his Jesuits the desire for ecclesial honors, which was rampant in Igantius's time.) Finally, we make a promise that, if we are somehow made bishop, we will still listen to the superior general.

But there have been, over the years, several instances of Jesuits being named cardinals, most often for their work in theology. Indeed one of the great Jesuit saints is Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SJ. So while we are counseled to avoid "ecclesiastical honors" this particular honor is almost always accepted for two reasons: first, it comes directly from the Holy Father; and second, it is an honor not simply for the man but a mark of a pontiff's gratitude for the Society of Jesus.

Congratulations to Cardinal-designate Becker, and also to my Ordinary, Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, who will certainly be a joyful addition to the College of Cardinals!


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