The Pope’s Magnificent Seven: With Friends like This….

The Pope’s Magnificent Seven: With Friends like This….

One of Italy’s leading news magazines recently ran a cover story titled “Sabotage in the Vatican” with a compelling graphic inside showing Pope Francis at the center of a wheel, circled by seven leading cardinals with a caption identifying them as the principal opponents of Francis’ reform efforts.  As the drip-drip of Vatileaks disclosures continues, the perennial issues becomes:

Cui bono?  Who benefits?  Who are the wholesalers of this stream of highly classified information?  Without pointing the finger at any particular cardinal, this is Il Panorama’s line-up.  The commentary on each of the Princes of the Church is my own.

  • At 12:00 o’clock high, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy;
  • At 2:00 o’clock Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
  • At 3:00 o’clock, NY’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan;
  • At 4;00 o’clock, Bologna’s Cardinal Carlo Caffarra;
  • At 6:00 o’clock directly below the Pope, Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy;
  • At 8:00 o’clock, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, long-time head of Italy’s bishops conference;
  • And at 11:00 o’clock, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and almost 88 years old.

These Seven may not be altogether Magnificent in the opinion of some Vatican watchers, but they are individuals that the Pope will have to deal with in any serious effort to change the status quo.  In plainer words, they are in a position to do major damage to, and perhaps break, Francis’ papacy. Hyperbole?  The original Vatileaks scandal of 2012 did in fact break the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI almost three years ago, as recounted towards the end of this post in the paragraph on Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Detailed comments on each of the M-7 in the Discussion Section below.


  1. More than two year ago Cardinal Mauro Piacenza was abruptly demoted by Francis from his powerful post as prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, entrusted with oversight for diocesan clergy world-wide and for 220,000 parishes across the globe. ‘Clergy’ is the first appeal level for parishioners who challenge their bishop’s decision to close parishes and churches. From ‘Clergy’ the cardinal made a decidedly hard landing, not a soft one, since he is now serving as the ‘Penitenziere Maggiore’, i.e. the Vatican’s jailer-in-chief. There is in fact a jail within the 105 acres of the Vatican, and business picked up in 2012 with the detention of Vatilieaks 1 culprit – The Butler (aka Paolo Gabriele).  And now Spanish Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda is in detention in connection with Vatileaks 2. Cardinal Piacenza has nine more years as a cardinal-elector in papal conclaves, before his eligibility times out in 2024.
  2. Cardinal Gerhard Mueller was handpicked by Pope Benedict in mid-2012 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He is the Vatican’s official keeper of orthodoxy and not hesitant to ‘explain’ to all and sundry what Francis really means when the Pope speaks.  In faith-based institutions such as the Church, the USSR, and the Red Sox, the position of Keeper of Orthodoxy is very powerful. It should be kept in mind that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as ‘CDF’ prefect from 1981 until his accession to the papacy in 2005, and it is beyond any doubt that he gave careful thought to filling the position of CDF prefect in 2012, since doctrine is a large part of Benedict’s legacy. Surprisingly, however, during the recent synod Cardinal Mueller lined up with his fellow German bishops in support of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Given the twists and turns involved in stretching doctrine to cover this innovation, and the razor-thin margin of approval by the synod, it is fair to wonder whether the German bishops’ collective alarm at losing the tithes of more than 820,000 Catholic during the period 2009-2013, and another 218,000 reported for 2014, injected a dose of Yankee pragmatism into the cardinal’s orthodoxy..
  3. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, was one of the most prominent signers of the notorious letter sent by 13 cardinals to the Pope and made public during the Synod for the Family, complaining that the synod was rigged in favor of the Pope’s policies. The back-story to this is that going into the synod most of the American bishops were lined up against the Pope’s initiatives, so Francis tried to level the playing field within the U.S. contingent by exercising his papal prerogative to name directly some of the synod delegates.  That is how Cardinal Dolan became one of the synod’s 270 delegates, having been passed over by his American colleagues. Kiss the ring and bite the hand that signed your admission ticket, all in one fluid motion.
  4. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, was also a signer of the Gang of 13 letter. But Francis lost no time in responding. Caffarra had turned 75 in June of 2013, and at that time submitted his pro forma resignation as archbishop of Bologna. Yet Francis waited almost two-and-a-half years to accept this.  And then, suddenly, the Vatican announced on October 27, a mere two days after the closing of the synod, that the cardinal’s resignation was accepted. Post hoc ergo propter hoc [cause and effect]?  Caffarra was elevated to cardinal by Pope Benedict. And not surprisingly the Bologna cardinal has been rigidly orthodox, lining up with the most vocal opponents of contraception.  This was especially noticeable in the turbulent wake of Benedict’s bizarre statement in 2009 [disavowed but taped during a press availability during his flight to Cameroon] that condoms might make the AIDS problem in Africa worse. The orthodox position is that abstinence and fidelity are the answer.  That might not work in zip code 90210 and other parts of LA.
  5. Cardinal George Pell had a major role in the G-13 letter, reportedly delivering it in person to Francis. The Aussie cardinal was handpicked by Francis soon after the March, 2013 conclave, to head what became in February of 2014 the Vatican’s economic super-department – the Secretariat for the Economy. Not surprisingly, bureaucratic warfare within the curia has been alive and well since that time. There is an alphabet soup of Holy See agencies involved and unhappy with being ‘coordinated’: The notorious bank, the IOR; the holding entity for Vatican assets, APSA; the Prefecture for Economic Affairs (kind of an OMB at the Vatican, OMG!); the Comptroller General; and the budgets for all Curia dicasteries. Above the Secretariat there is supposed to be adult supervision via the Council for the Economy. And somewhere on the sidelines is the Vatican’s Financial Authority Agency, set up in response to criticism from the Council of Europe (not the European Union;  and please don’t ask why, it has to do with the cuisine in Strasbourg – seat of the Council).  The function of the Vatican’s FIA is to implement anti-money laundering efforts, and it is tasked with bringing the Vatican’s financial operations up to the Council of Europe’s code of good conduct. Confused now? And isn’t confusion the work of the devil?
  6. Cardinal Camillo Ruini is the former head of Italy’s bishops’ conference. He is one of the longest serving presidents of the conference (1991 through 2007) and as a result he has an extensive network among most of Italy’s prelates. Going into the 2013 conclave that elected the Argentine cardinal, the Italian episcopate – with active lobbying by Cardinal Ruini – got solidly behind their favorite son, Italy’s Angelo Scola, who is Milan’s cardinal-archbishop.  Cardinal Scola was also, of course, a G-13 signer. As reported in the Italian media before the 2013 conclave, part of the lobbying theme by the Italian Bishops Conference (“CEI”) was, that after 35 years of a Polish and then a German papacy, it was time to bring an Italian back to the Palazzo Apostolico. Legit, I suppose, rah for the home team. But on the evening of March 13, when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the CEI got carried away and tripped on its collective cassock.  The conference posted on its website the following breaking news item:  Congratulazioni Papa Scola. Big oops.
  7. And finally Cardinal Angelo SodanoHe is currently dean of the College of Cardinals, almost 88 years old. As dean, he presided over the College of Cardinals during the 2013 interregnum between the effective date of Pope Benedict’s resignation, February 28, and the date of Cardinal Bergoglio’s election, March 13. The ‘coordinator’ role of the dean is very powerful indeed.  The ‘decano‘ oversees a lot of the ceremonial, including which cardinals get to celebrate the traditional Nine Masses during the period of papal vacancy known as sede vacante.  Some of the homilies during these Masses can be campaign speeches by ambitious cardinals, although Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley informed the world during the 2013 pre-conclave maneuvers that ‘no cardinal enters the conclave with the ambition of being Pope’ (!).  Cardinal Sodano served as the Vatican’s secretary of State (i.e. prime minister) from 1991 through 2006, including the painful years of decline of Saint John Paul II, when Sodano ruled the Vatican virtually unchallenged.  There is an important aspect regarding Cardinal Sodano’s near-election to the papacy in 2005. At that conclave assembled after the death of Saint John Paul, Sodano was an early odds-on favorite as papabile (‘popeable’). The next two contenders, Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, decided that if they both ran, they would split the conclave vote and Cardinal Sodano would waltz in…so Cardinal Martini stepped aside for his German colleague, BUT staked out his condition for withdrawing:  If Cardinal Ratzinger as the eventual pope, would be unable to break up the ruling Curia clique, then Joseph Ratzinger would resign as pope. Cardinal Ratzinger agreed to this. As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger visited Cardinal Martini in the summer of 2012 as the old Jesuit was on his death bed. According to Cardinal Martini’s confidant, Jesuit priest Silvano Fausti, the cardinal ‘called in his promise’. Preparations were set in motion quickly.  In September of 2012, Pope Benedict quietly gave the start to remodeling what is now his retirement home inside the Vatican; and the resident nuns were relocated.  In January of 2013, Benedict ordained his longtime private secretary, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, as archbishop in a ceremony at Saint Peter.  And on February 11 Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign.  The name Sodano might sound familiar to American readers because the cardinal’s nephew, Andrea Sodano, was quite the guy around NYC ten years ago with actress Anne Hathaway as his arm-candy. There is a long-form story that ran in Vanity Fair involving young Andrea Sodano’s property development venture to buy ‘surplus’ Catholic churches from some of the 197 U.S. dioceses, fix ‘em and flip ‘em. Part of the business plan involved the notion that the surname Sodano would open a lot of diocesan chancery doors. And to add to the tabloid aspect, there was a cameo appearance in this drama by LA’s billionaire Ron Burkle, an investor in Andrea Sodano’s deal. (Burkle was also Best Pal to former President Bill Clinton, for a while..private jets around the world and so forth.) In due course, Burkle sued Sodano (the nephew, not the cardinal), the Andrea Sodano church-flipping venture went up in smoke, and in October of 2008 in federal criminal proceedings Andrea Sodano pled guilty, receiving a 54-month sentence and becoming a guest of a Club Fed.

 It is widely anticipated that Francis advisory group of nine cardinals, launched in the spring of 2013, will present recommendations for reorganizing the Vatican bureaucracy at its upcoming 2016 meeting in March.  A leading American consulti ng firm, McKinsey, is reported to have a major role in the work.  Like many such reorg efforts, there are rumored to be several options, including a Big Bang approach that would involve drastic mergers among Vatican departments, outright elimination of several these entities, and a significant devolution of power to 2,989 ‘ecclesiastical territories’, i.e. the dioceses and eparchies around the globe.

In fact, the Devolution Revolution (subject of a future post) has begun, rather quietly:

  • Under certain defined circumstances, marriage annulments become the prerogative of the dioceses and eparchies, eliminating the mandatory step of second appeals to Rome for affirmation; and
  • The synod’s fragile compromise solution for the major issue of Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics is to devolve the resolution of this to the local pastors, under the guidance of the bishops.

This might turn on its head the notion of Ex Pluribus Unum.  But this approach would be consistent with Francis’ emphasis upon collegiality among his brother bishops, underscored by his frequent references to his title of Archbishop of Rome, which is only the fifth of his seven formal titles ranging from Vicar of Jesus Christ to Servant of God’s Servants.

There is also a truly far-out scenario as part of reorganization:  that Francis is considering a move away from the Papal domicile close to the banks of the Tiber to the St. John the Lateran complex, which is in fact the historic seat of the papacy. That would be a surpise…from a Pope who never ceases to surprise.




1 thought on “The Pope’s Magnificent Seven: With Friends like This….

  1. Keep it coming, Peter. Oliva and I love it, not for substance only but for your style. If not a film, at least a book??

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