But the election of Francis changed all of that. Even though the radical elements within the church were a small and aging minority, the progressives realized that the only person who really matters is the pope. That’s why they organized to get Francis elected. Since then they have understood that if Francis and his faction can find just a few score of like-minded priests to elevate, they can ensure that the current pope’s successor will share his ideological preferences.
The College of Cardinals is supposed to have 120 voting members; currently there are 124 members eligible to participate in the next conclave. That’s more than the cap should allow. Why? Because 75 of them—including Cupich and Tobin—have been appointed by Francis. Unlike his predecessor, Francis understands power. And because there are so few high-level progressives in the church, Francis understands that losing any of these men could endanger his succession, which could endanger his larger project. His confederates, in turn, understand that losing Francis himself at this moment could sink it entirely.
The chances of the church’s losing Francis, however, are slim. You cannot impeach a pope. And barring an unexpected return to our Heavenly Father, Francis will remain pope for the foreseeable future. Which leaves four possible pathways, none of which is attractive.