Cardinal Edwin O’Brien celebrated his 80th birthday on Monday, still going strong as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre following stints as the military archbishop in the U.S. and later as Archbishop of Baltimore.

By virtue of turning 80, O’Brien automatically lost his right to participate in the next papal conclave. At the moment, that leaves the U.S. with nine cardinal-electors:

  • Raymond Burke (70)
  • Blase Cupich (70)
  • Daniel DiNardo (69)
  • Timothy Dolan (69)
  • Kevin Farrell (71)
  • James Harvey (69)
  • Sean O’Malley (74)
  • Joseph Tobin (66)
  • Donald Wuerl (78)

Barring the unforeseen, the next to exit would be Wuerl in November 2020.

In each of the past two conclaves, there were eleven American cardinals who cast ballots, the second largest national group after the Italians. (In 2005 the Italians had 20, and in 2013 a robust 28.) Were there to be a conclave tomorrow, American participation thus would be down two spots, roughly 18 percent, from the last couple of times.

In truth, there are several reasons why Pope Francis may well not see that as a problem.

One is simple equity. In the 2005 conclave (when, let’s remember, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was in effect the runner-up to Pope Benedict), Americans cast the same number of votes as all of Africa, despite the fact that Africa has more than twice the Catholic population. Brazil, the largest Catholic country on earth, only had three votes, which worked out to one cardinal-elector in 2005 for every six million American Catholics and for every 43 million in Brazil.

Though Catholicism is not a democracy, that sort of discrepancy understandably strikes many Catholics around the world as unfair.

Further, a slow decline in the total compliment of American cardinals is also consistent with Francis’s policy of preferring to bestow red hats on the peripheries rather than the center. For instance, were there to be a conclave tomorrow, the world’s island nations would have an all-time high of six votes: Cape Verde, Tonga, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. (Electors from those places could invite Cardinal John Dew of New Zealand to join, and for the first time the islands could have their own bloc.)

Francis prefers to avoid the impression that certain major archdioceses around the world, which tend to be located in the West, are simply “entitled” to a cardinal, and he’s also fairly beholden to the informal rule of not creating a new cardinal in a diocese while the previous cardinal remains under 80 and hence eligible to vote for the next pope. (That, for instance, is at least part of the reason both Milan and Venice in Italy remain without cardinals.)

Still, Francis is rumored to be planning a consistory, the event in which new cardinals are created, around the traditional June 29 feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul. It’s possible he could look at the slowly diminishing total of electors from the U.S. and conclude he’s got room for at least one new Prince of the Church in the States.

If so, in many ways the obvious choice would be Archbishop Wilton Gregory, whom Francis just named to Washington, D.C.

Not only would many see it as a long-overdue recognition of Gregory’s leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference during the first round of abuse scandals in 2002-2003 culminating in the Dallas Charter, but it would also come at a time when Catholics in the nation’s capital are reeling from the series of controversies that compelled Wuerl to stand aside.

Add in the symbolic importance of an African-American cardinal, not to mention that Gregory is seen as a broadly middle-of-the-road figure, maybe leaning just slightly left, in keeping with the spirit of Francis’s papacy, and he might seem all but irresistible.

However, giving the red hat to Gregory now would also run afoul of the informal taboo concerning creating cardinals while their predecessors are still under 80.

Another obvious candidate to whom that particular impediment no longer applies is Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, given that his predecessor in L.A., Cardinal Roger Mahony, is now 83. Francis, however, has already held three consistories since Mahony turned 80 without tapping Gomez, leading observers to wonder if there’s another stumbling block.

Despite the fact that those who know Gomez well say he’s essentially non-ideological, some wonder if perhaps his Opus Dei background and his mentorship under Archbishop Charles Chaput in Denver give him a profile just slightly to the right of the kind of cardinal Francis wants. Others suspect it’s more basic, that Francis just doesn’t want to feed a sense of entitlement by creating cardinals where tradition dictates.

In any event, putting Gomez on the list this time might appeal to Francis in at least a couple of ways.

First, it would show support for the de facto leader of the U.S. bishops while Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo continues to recover from a mild stroke, at a moment when the U.S. conference is facing serious challenges related to the clerical abuse scandals (and, by the way, feeling a bit misunderstood by Rome, after Francis said no to an American request for an apostolic visitation of the McCarrick case last fall.) Second, it would be a nod to the burgeoning Hispanic wing of the U.S. Church, as well as a way of putting an exclamation point on Gomez’s passionate advocacy for immigrant rights.

However, Francis is forever a pope of surprises. If he decides to think outside the box, creating an American cardinal while bypassing the usual venues, where might he look?

One compelling answer would be the U.S./Mexico border, and everything it’s come to symbolize about migration, human trafficking, global economic justice, and so many of the other concerns close to the pope’s heart. In that light, it probably wouldn’t stun anyone to learn that, say, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville or Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso made the cut. Some might even point to Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who has a stronger profile as a political and theological progressive.

And, if he really wants to embrace the peripheries, how about a red hat for Archbishop Paul Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, who’s got eight parishes in his urban area and another 13 parishes and missions outside, many accessible only by airplane or boat?

As always, time will tell. We should know more in May as we get closer to the rumored consistory date.