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Comment on the Comments

William Oddie FAITH Magazine September-October 2006

What may turn out to be the most important Vatican news story this year received a strangely muted coverage, not only in the secular media, but among most Catholic commentators, too. It was the perfect opportunity for an anti-Papa Ratzinger media moment: but nobody, these days, seems to have the stomach for it. The BBC account, by veteran Rome correspondent (and JPII-knocker) David Willey, ran as follows: ‘Pope Benedict XVI has chosen a close former colleague to become his new Vatican secretary of state. Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 71, will replace fellow Italian Angelo Sodano as the Pope’s number two. Cardinal Bertone, currently archbishop of Genoa, has long been a trusted collaborator of Benedict. They used to work in the same Vatican department…. The only reason why CardinalSodano is leaving is that he is already three years past the Vatican’s official retirement age of 75.’ The Guardian was slightly less anodyne: ‘His appointment followed more than a year of behind-the- scenes manoeuvring at the highest levels. Though orthodox in his doctrinal thinking, Cardinal Bertone is known as a genial man with a human touch’ (for The Guardian, it seems, geniality and orthodoxy are not commonly seen together). Only The Times report was something of a throwback to the old kneejerk Popeknocking days: ‘Critics,’ wrote one Richard Owen, ‘said that putting a Ratzinger-Bertone alliance at the top of the Vatican hierarchy meant that the Church would be in the hands of “arch-conservatives” at a time when many Catholics, especially in the Third World, are calling forreform.’

As for those Catholic commentators generally noted for ‘calling for reform’, they have been remarkably low-key. The Tablet said virtually nothing by way of comment; as for the American National Catholic Register, its Rome Correspondent, John L Allen Jr, reported simply that Bertone was not a product of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, and thus reflected ‘the priority of doctrinal concerns over diplomatic exigencies in the pontificate of Benedict XVI.’ His lengthy accompanying column on the subject was simply a lighthearted article on the appointment as an example of ‘Salesian chic’ (apparently, the Salesian order, internationally, is on the up and up at the moment). Nearly all these stories reflected either the caution of the moment, or simple ignorance. It is difficult to know which it iswith the BBC’s David Willey; like many secular Rome correspondents, he doubles up on the Vatican, sometimes with ill-disguised distaste; and I have often suspected that he cannot be bothered to find out what is really going on behind the walls of the Vatican City. How else, for instance are we to explain the extraordinary statement that ‘The only reason why Cardinal Sodano is leaving is that he is already three years past the Vatican’s official retirement age of 75’? The Guardian’s man seems to have cottoned on to the fact that there was more to it than that, with his statement that Bertone’s appointment ‘followed more than a year of behind-the- scenes manoeuvring…’.

The nearest any of these commentators came to working out why this may be a landmark appointment was John L Allen, with his throwaway comment that the appointment reflected ‘the priority of doctrinal concerns … in the pontificate of Benedict XVI.’ Of this, more later. First, however, it is worth following up the Guardian’s suggestion of ‘behind-the-scenes manoeuvring’, for if one thing is certain it is that David Willey could not have been further away from the truth. In fact, it seems, Cardinal Sodano has been orchestrating a vigorous campaign of support for his remaining in office until his 80th birthday, November 23, 2007. He has been supported in this by curial Cardinals who had formerly been career diplomats: Achille Silvestrini, Pio Laghi, and Giovanni Cheli, whose opposition toBertone’s appointment as secretary of state was based on his lack of diplomatic experience. But Cardinal Sodano had already, it appears, made it inevitable that this Pope—who is beginning his pontificate as he means to go on— would have to remove him as soon as possible. For, this was not the first little campaign Sodano had waged to frustrate the Pope’s intentions. On January 26, Cardinal Sodano, in the Pope’s name but without his knowledge, sent the following letter to all the bishops in Italy, with two exceptions: the Pope himself and Sodano’s own archrival, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Pope’s vicar and president of the Italian bishops’ conference (the CEI)—whom Pope Benedict expressly wished not to retire from office at the statutory age of 75:

Most Reverend Excellency,
As you know, next March 6 the mandate of the Most Eminent Cardinal Camillo Ruini as president of the CEI will come to a conclusion. The Holy Father, who has always appreciated very much the service rendered by the Most Eminent Cardinal to the Italian Church, thinks nonetheless that, in part because of his forthcoming seventy-fifth birthday, a change in the office of the presidency is in order. To this end it is my duty and privilege to address Your Excellency, asking you to indicate to me, coram Domino and with courteous solicitude, the Prelate that you intend to suggest for the aforementioned office. This consultation, in consideration of its importance and delicacy, is subject to the pontifical seal of secrecy, which requires the utmost caution with all persons.
Finally, I would ask you to return this letter together with your response, without keeping copies of anything.

This manoeuvre (too clumsy to be called Machiavellian) was almost bound to be discovered. Both Ruini and the Pope were soon made aware of it. On February 9, the Pope received Ruini in audience and told him that he wished him to continue in office. As is the custom, no announcement was made. But Sodano’s manoeuvres continued. The letter to all the bishops was leaked to the press, with the spin that it represented the Pope’s wish for a more ‘collegial process’. Intensely irritated, Benedict XVI picked up the telephone and ordered that precedent was to be overturned and that his confirmation of Ruini as president of the CEI was to be made public immediately. This was not the only reason Pope Benedict wanted Sodano out and a less ‘diplomatic’ Secretary of State in. One reason was notdissimilar to the suspicions of the Foreign Office traditionally voiced in British political circles: that it is run by people whose instinct is to ‘go native’. Sodano, for instance has always pursued a very compliant policy with the Chinese government. He once said that in order to establish diplomatic relations with China, he was ready to move the Vatican nunciature from Taipei to Beijing ‘not tomorrow, but this very evening.’ This statement was seen as a betrayal of many Chinese Catholics, and in particular by the outspoken bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, according to whom religious liberty should come before any sort of diplomatic accommodation. He will now, it is generally thought, have a greatly increased influence over the Vatican’s Chinese policy.

John L Allen’s surmise that Pope Benedict’s intention in appointing Cardinal Bertone was to give more emphasis to doctrine was, significantly, confirmed by the Pope himself in a letter to the archdiocese of Genoa, in which he interestingly observed that during his three-year tenure as its archbishop, Cardinal Bertone had demonstrated his value by ‘combining pastoral care and doctrinal wisdom.’

Those same qualities, the Pope wrote, led him to choose the cardinal for ‘this exalted and delicate task’ at the Secretariat of State. But why would the Pope want a more doctrinally focused Secretary of State? The answer has to do with another question, often asked in this country. Why was it, when nearly all the present bishops were appointed by Pope John Paul II, that so many of them seemed dedicated to frustrating his intentions? Why, in other words, had he made so many mistakes? The answer is that in recommending a priest to the Pope for appointment as bishop, the Congregation for Bishops in Rome is almost entirely dependent on the information relayed to it by the Apostolic Nuncio of the country concerned, who sends a report of about 20 pages, together with a list of three names (theterna) and his own preference. Why have we had overwhelmingly liberal bishops for the last 30 years? Because we have had liberal nuncios. Who appoints the nuncios? Why, the Secretary of State. Why has ‘doctrinal wisdom’ been one of the criteria the Pope considered in appointing Cardinal Bertone? Answers on a postcard: but there are no prizes for working it out. Our own present nuncio is said to be an improvement on his predecessor, and he will now, we may suppose, benefit from firm guidance from above on the criteria to be applied in recommending candidates for the episcopate. It will take a good decade to give the English and Welsh Conference of Bishops a radical new look. Cardinal Bertone is an athletic 71 who looks in pretty good nick; fingers crossed.

A postscript on Cardinal Sodano: in my last article, I recounted the disgrace of Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who has been suspended as a priest after investigations into charges against him of sexual abuse carried out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One question frequently asked is how, given the fact that these charges go back for many years, had he survived as long as he did? The answer usually given is that he was always supported by the late Pope. But why was that? One factor, according to the fascinating website ( of Sandro Magister of L’Espresso—the doyen of Rome’s Vaticanistas—was the steadfast support of Cardinal Sodano, to whom Fr Maciel has always been close. Thismay even, have been a factor in Sodano’s removal. The present Pope, it seems, has been from the first absolutely determined to cleanse the Church from what he described in one of his Good Friday meditations for the Stations of the Cross as the ‘filth… in the Church… even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Christ’. Sandro Magister points out that Pope Benedict appointed, as his own replacement at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop William J. Levada, one of the four bishops responsible for the effort against sexual abuse committed by priests in the United States. Most interestingly of all, Magister recounts the following interesting little anecdote, which has about it the ring of truth:
"Two days before the conclave [at which he was elected Pope], on April 16, Ratzinger met Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a great proponent of his election and an even more decisive supporter of a rigorous approach to purifying the Church of this scourge. Ratzinger assured him of his support."

As George was kissing the newly elected Pope’s ring, Benedict XVI told him he would keep that promise. It looks as though we may just have begun an unusually effective pontificate.

Faith Magazine