VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict named six new cardinals on Wednesday, including two from countries with large Muslim populations, to put his stamp on the future of the Catholic Church.
All six are under 80 years old and thus eligible under Church law to enter a conclave that will one day choose Benedict’s successor.
Among them is American Archbishop James Michael Harvey who, as head of the “Pontifical Household”, was the boss of the pope’s former butler Paolo Gabriele. He was convicted this month of stealing papal documents and leaking them to the media.
A spokesman denied the promotion of Harvey, who will now leave the Vatican to become head of a Rome basilica, was a means of removing him because of the scandal.
The other five new members of the ultra-elite group known as “cardinal electors” are from Lebanon, India, Nigeria, Colombia and the Philippines. The ceremony to install them, known as a consistory, will be held on November 24, the pope said in a surprise announcement at his weekly general audience.
The pope is a conservative on matters of faith and sexual morals such as birth control, homosexuality and the ban on women priests. Each time he names cardinals he chooses men who share his views and can shape the Church’s future.
Beatitude Bechara Boutros Rai, 72, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon, and Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, 68, from Abuja in Nigeria, are from countries with significant Muslim populations.
The pope’s decision to raise the two to the highest rank in the Church short of the papacy indicates his concern for relations between Christianity and Islam.
The pope visited predominantly Muslim Lebanon last September and called on members of both faiths to work together to build peace in the Middle East and beyond.
In Nigeria, which is about 50 percent Muslim, the Islamist sect Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in attacks since launching an uprising in 2009. Many of the attacks have been on Christians and churches.
Cardinals are the pope’s closest aides in the Vatican, where they run its key departments, and around the world, where they head dioceses to administer the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Harvey, 63, looked after world leaders visiting the Vatican and arranges the pope’s audiences.
Harvey suspended and then fired Gabriele after the butler’s thefts were discovered by Monsignor Georg Ganswein, Benedict’s private secretary and Gabriele’s immediate superior. Gabriele once worked directly for Harvey and it was Harvey who vouched for him when he became papal butler.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Harvey had been in his position for nearly 15 years and the pope wanted to reward him for long service.
Benedict was criticized in some Church circles last February when, in choosing his previous batch of cardinals, he elevated many from the Vatican’s central bureaucracy. He was accused of neglecting the needs of the developing world.
Another new cardinal, Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, 53, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara rite in India, is on the front line of inter-religious dialogue with Hinduism.
The other two come from predominantly Catholic countries - Archbishop Ruben Salazar Gomez, 70, of Bogota, Colombia, and Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of Manila in the Philippines, which is the largest Catholic country in Asia.
After the consistory, the number of “cardinal electors” will rise to 120, the maximum allowed under Church law. The total number of men in the college of cardinals will be 211.
Benedict has now named 67, or more than half, of the cardinals who will elect his successor from among their own ranks. The other 53 were named by Pope John Paul.
The pope’s health appears to be good but he has been looking frail recently and has started using a cane.
Popes usually reign for life but in a book in 2010, Benedict said he would not hesitate to become the first pontiff to resign in more than 700 years if he felt no longer able “physically, psychologically and spiritually” to run the Catholic Church.
The last pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months. Gregory XII reluctantly abdicated in 1415 to end a dispute with a rival claimant to the Holy See.
Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Barry Moody and Robert Woodward