It’s that time of year when popes head for the hills. Usually this means two weeks in the Alps followed by two weeks at the Castel Gandolfo villa, where the current incumbent likes to spend some quality time reading, writing and playing the piano. Unusually, this year B16 is skipping the Alpine break and heading straight for Castel Gandolfo, raising the possibility that the great man has something up his sleeve that needs working on. We will find that out in due course.
In the meantime, we’re in the usual pre-holiday wash-up of unfinished business, which means a lot of tricky personnel issues.
Part the first:
One of the key skills for any Vatican-watcher is to check the daily VIS press releases for who’s been popping into the Holy See for an audience, and then think about why. Yesterday Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels was in to discuss how the Belgian police – yes, the same Belgian police who performed so well against the Dutroux paedophile ring – are now in the tomb-violating business. Unofficially, this ties together with a broader issue of cleaning up the mess left behind by Cardinal Danneels and his mates in the Belgian Magic Circle. And today it’s been the living disaster area that is Bishop Walter Mixa, late of Augsburg, who has been directed to a quiet, prayerful – and hopefully sober – retirement.
Those VIS press releases are often pretty anodyne and require one to read between the lines, but I honestly can’t remember one as pointed as this, from Monday:
VATICAN CITY, 28 JUN 2010 (VIS) – The Holy See Press Office released the following communique early this afternoon:
“(1) The Holy Father today received in audience Cardinal Christoph Schonborn O.P., archbishop of Vienna and president of the Austrian Episcopal Conference. The cardinal had asked to meet the Supreme Pontiff personally in order to report on the current situation of the Church in Austria. In particular, Cardinal Schonborn wished to clarify the exact meaning of his recent declarations concerning some aspects of current ecclesiastical discipline, and certain of his judgements regarding positions adopted by the Secretariat of State – and in particular by the then Secretary of State of Pope John Paul II – concerning the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, archbishop of Vienna from 1986 to 1995.
“(2) Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, and Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone S.D.B. were subsequently invited to join the meeting.
“In the second part of the audience certain widespread misunderstandings were clarified and resolved, misunderstandings deriving partly from certain statements of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, who expressed his displeasure at the interpretations given to his words.
“(a) It must be reiterated that, in the Church, when accusations are made against a cardinal, competency falls exclusively to the Pope; other parties may have a consultative function, while always maintaining due respect for persons.
“(b) The word ‘chiacchiericcio’ (gossip) was erroneously interpreted as disrespectful to the victims of sexual abuse, towards whom Cardinal Angelo Sodano nourishes the same feelings of compassion, and of condemnation of evil, as expressed on various occasions by the Holy Father. That word, pronounced during his Easter address to Pope Benedict XVI, was taken literally from the pontifical homily of Palm Sunday and referred to the “courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip of prevalent opinions”.
“(3) The Holy Father, recalling with great affection his own pastoral trip to Austria, via Cardinal Christoph Schonborn sends his greetings and encouragement to the Church in Austria, and to her pastors, entrusting the journey to renewed ecclesial communion to the celestial protection of the Blessed Virgin, so venerated at Mariazell”.
OP/ VIS 20100628 (370)
Ouch! I don’t want to say it’s unprecedented for a pope to publicly rebuke two senior cardinals – few things in the Catholic Church are truly unprecedented – but it is, I would guess, the first time in living memory. This reads very much like Professor Ratzinger giving a couple of unruly students a rap over the knuckles – literally in the case of Schönborn, an old pupil of the professor’s.
Some background is required here. The first thing to bear in mind is that Archduke Christoph, that holdover from the Holy Roman Empire, is the original loose canon, with a propensity for running his yap in front of any journalist he can find. Some Vatican-watchers, easily impressed by a high profile, like to tout Schönborn as papabile, which heaven forbid – it would be like handing the papacy to Groucho Marx. Anyway, this is the second time in six months that Christoph has exited the Vatican with his ears burning. The first was in connection with his ostentatious New Year pilgrimage to Medjugorje, much to the displeasure of Bishop Ratko Perić of Mostar-Duvno and indeed the Bosnian hierarchy as a whole. The Croats evidently bent some ears, for shortly afterwards Schönborn was in Rome for an audience, and immediately after the audience he sent a conciliatory fax to Perić, which the Mostar-Duvno diocese thoughtfully made public.
Currently, Schönborn is in hot water for a number of reasons. Partly this has to do with his public musings on celibacy. Now, to simplify matters greatly, you have to consider the difference between Tradition – fundamental aspects of the faith that can’t be modified – and traditions that have grown up over the centuries but aren’t fundamental and could theoretically be modified. Compulsory celibacy (which is a mediaeval innovation in the Latin Rite, and one that Eastern Churches like the Uniates or Maronites happily do without) is in the latter category, and could theoretically go, but you’d probably need an ecumenical council to do that rather than some media interviews from an individual cardinal. Furthermore, there are good reasons that can be advanced for either keeping or scrapping compulsory celibacy, but going along with the zeitgeist is not a very good reason. This coincides with an opinion poll amongst Austrian priests indicating strong support for scrapping celibacy, which is not surprising in a country where it’s an open secret that the majority of priests keep mistresses; nor is it surprising that the strongest support was in the ultra-liberal Linz diocese. What was more surprising was that poll showing 51% support for ordaining women, something even a semi-literate seminarian should know is theologically impossible.
For a man who presides over what is evidently a den of heresy, it never ceases to amaze me that Schönborn is a member of the CDF. Unless, of course, it’s to keep an eye on him.
But there’s also an element here related to the sex abuse scandal. You may recall that, after Benedict’s letter to Ireland, when there was clearly a strong message that needed to be communicated, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former Secretary of State and current Dean of the Italian Magic Circle College of Cardinals, chose Easter to make a speech about how the Pope shouldn’t allow himself to be distracted by the petty gossip of the moment, a statement that was flashed around the world and was so profoundly unhelpful that you would almost think Sodano was deliberately trying to balls things up.
And this is where Schönborn came out batting strongly, flagging up the forced removal from office of his predecessor, the notorious pervert Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, an operation spearheaded by the then Cardinal Ratzinger and which, it was reliably reported, Sodano had opposed. This is basically correct, and Schönborn would have been no less correct had he added that Sodano’s close relationship with the creepy Legionaries of Christ should disqualify him from pontificating on such subjects.
Anyway, and I know this is getting convoluted, you really can’t have two cardinals involved in a public spat of this nature, which is why Cardinal Wingnut and Cardinal Deadbeat were called in to meet B16 and his enforcer Bertone, and for the ruler to be firmly applied to the knuckles.
There is also, as usual in these situations, a game within the game, and I think Fr Ray is on the money here. Sodano is effectively retired from any real position of power, but retains a lot of influence with those bishops and cardinals, of whom there are about a zillion in Italy, who spend most of their time hatching plots over their espressos, and who would dearly love to go back to the old backscratching ways. Schönborn, on the other hand, is burnishing his credentials with the progressive faction. What they’ve both been told, in effect, is to stop plotting the next conclave and go find something better to do.
In Schönborn’s case, this observer wouldn’t mind him being allowed to spend more time with portraits of his ancestors, but there is probably nobody better in Austria, and at a relatively young 65, he’ll likely be in situ for another decade. As for Sodano, he already has too much time on his hands – a job that’s time-consuming but not important enough for him to cause damage would be just the ticket.
Part the second:
Some important Curia appointments this week, on the heels of the long-expected retirements of Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re and Walter Kasper. (I have a good story about Walter Kasper, but that can wait for another time.) And so we see a reinforcement of B16’s policy of putting his own men into key positions as the old guard retire. Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel replaces Kasper as the Christian Unity czar – he’s not very well known yet, but he does get on well with the Eastern Orthodox, and that’s where the big ecumenical business is these days. Archbishop Rino Fisichella is tapped for the brand spanking new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, for which his strong performances on Italian TV can’t have hurt. And, in the biggest news, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Québec replaces Re at the head of the hugely powerful Congregation for Bishops.
And that’s a story in itself. Ouellet is a good candidate, multilingual, an impeccably orthodox theologian of the Communio school, and what folks in Canadaland describe as a stand-up kinda guy. Yet for quite a while, rumours had been circulating that Australian strongman Cardinal George Pell was in line for the CfB job, a prospect that caused something like gibbering panic in some corners of the College of Bishops. This was apparently scuppered by Pell’s health (he has a pacemaker, though it doesn’t seem to slow him down much) and the re-emergence of abuse allegations from the early 1960s that were investigated years ago and found to be groundless. Nonetheless, that knocked out the first choice and led to the the substitute. And yet… I wonder.
If I wanted to appoint Marc Ouellet to the Congregation for Bishops, it occurs to me that the best way to head off potential opposition is to scare the bejesus out of the various episcopal conferences with the prospect of George Pell, so then Ouellet would be greeted with a sigh of relief. The advantage is that while Pell revels in his image as a stentorian ideologue, Ouellet is much more Canadian about such matters – politely firm. Pell would announce that he was going to screw over Eccleston Square and dare them to do something about it; Ouellet could screw them over so politely they wouldn’t realise until six months later. An intriguing choice.
Couple more short snippets on the vaguely religious theme. The increasingly weird L’Osservatore Romano has a theory as to why Latin Americans are so good at football; and the wrath of the Almighty strikes the Lord Mayor of Leicester in a most excruciating way.