Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI holds the ostensory as he celebrates a New Year's Eve vespers service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011 PA

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday brought 22 Catholic churchmen into the elite club of cardinals who will elect his successor, looking to cement the Italian majority in a future conclave.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, has suggested that the reason for an inclination towards European-based cardinals may be that Pope Benedict, a native of Germany who worked for much of his career at the Vatican, has been highly concerned about, and focused on, the decline of Roman Catholicism in Europe. He said the high number of Italian cardinals might also reflect the influence of high-ranking Italians in Benedict's administration, including the Vatican's powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

"There have already been two non-Italian popes in a row, and they may not want there to be a third," Father Reese was quoted as saying in New York Times.

According to an analysis by Father Reese, the percentage of Italians in the College of Cardinals has risen to 24 percent, from 16 percent, during Pope Benedict's tenure.

Of the 22 new cardinals, seven are Italian, adding to the eight voting-age Italian cardinals named at the last consistory in November 2010. As of Saturday, Italy will have 30 cardinals out of the 125 under the age of 80. Only the United States comes close, with 12 cardinals under 80, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Cardinal-designate Edwin O'Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore who is now Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.

The consistory class of 2012 is heavily European, reinforcing Europe's dominance of the College of Cardinals, even though two-thirds of the world's Catholics are in the southern hemisphere. All but three of the new under-80 cardinals come from the West, along with a Brazilian, an Indian and a Chinese.