It’s Sunset Boulevard for the Cardinal Secretary of State

ROMA, March 2, 2006 For the Vatican curia, the upcoming consistory from March 23-25 will be very Lenten, and really hardly festive at all.

Only three of the curia heads waiting for the cardinal’s purple will receive it. Of those left standing at the gate, the most famous, archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, not only was not promoted as a cardinal, but was demoted as a nuncio in Egypt.

Step by step, with a few well-aimed decisions, Benedict XVI has already expunged two of the bastions in the curia that were opposed to him: the Congregation for the Liturgy, with the appointment as secretary of an archbishop of Sri Lanka in his trust, Albert M. Ranjith Patabendige Don, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with Fitzgerald’s dismissal as president.

And now everyone in the curia is waiting ‘or fearing’ for the next blow to fall against the secretariat of state, with the retirement on account of age of its senior office holder, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

* * *

Sodano, 78 years old, from Isola da Asti in Piedmont, seems to have no intention of leaving. On the contrary; in recent weeks he has sought instead to put out of commission another cardinal whom he has always considered his archrival, the pope’s vicar and the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI, Camillo Ruini.

The trouble is that Ruini is incomparably more highly favored by Benedict XVI than Sodano is. And as a result the latter’s maneuver has turned back against himself. In the current secretary of state, Pope Joseph Ratzinger now sees more of an obstacle than a help.

There is a backdrop to Sodano’s maneuver: the audience Benedict XVI held with Ruini on January 2 of this year.

At that audience, Ruini handed over to the pope the letter of resignation that every bishop is required to write when he turns 75 years old, a resignation that the pope can choose to accept or not accept. Ruini turned 75 on February 19, and the following March 6 his third five-year term as president of the Italian bishops’ conference will also come to an end. But Benedict wants him to remain in office, both as vicar and as president. The pope sees that he is already too isolated, both in the curia and outside of it, to separate himself from a cardinal like Ruini, who agrees to an extraordinary extent with his vision and his program.

But nothing of this twofold confirmation was said publicly. The practice in regard to the office of vicar is for the office holder to remain at his post until the pope tells him he has accepted his resignation. As for the presidency of the CEI, there is time until March 6. And even here the decision belongs to the pope as the bishop of Rome and primate of Italy, unlike other nations in which the president of the conference is elected by the bishops.

In 1991, 1996, and 2001, John Paul II, each time before he made Ruini head of the CEI, asked for the advice of the presidents of the sixteen regions into which the Italian episcopacy is subdivided.

But this time ‘and this was at the end of January’ rather than the pope, the secretariat of state extended the consultation to all of the 226 bishops in office. To each one, the nuncio in Italy Paolo Romeo sent a letter under the seal of pontifical secrecy, asking the recipient to ‘indicate coram Domino’ and with gracious solicitude the prelate that you would like to suggest.

But there’s more in the letter. It begins by stating in no uncertain terms that ‘next March 6 the mandate of the Most Eminent Cardinal Camillo Ruini as president of the CEI will come to a conclusion’? And it continues by asserting that ‘the Holy Father thinks that a change in the office of the presidency is in order.’

The letter bears the date of January 26, and the only one to whom it was not sent was Ruini. But he was immediately made aware of it. And Benedict XVI was also informed, and discovered that it said the opposite of what he was planning to do.

On February 6, the nuncio who signed the letter, Romeo, was called by Benedict XVI for an audience. The pope asked him how and why this initiative came about. Romeo left the audience in shambles, but Sodano was the one who was really trembling.

On February 9, Benedict XVI received Ruini together with his right hand man, the secretary general of the CEI, bishop Giuseppe Betori. They both received the pope’s reassurances. News of the letter had not yet leaked to the outside.

But a few days later, the news agencies and newspapers were writing about it, attributing the idea for the letter to the pope and to his desire to decide ‘more collegially’ on a replacement for Ruini. And in fact, on the morning of February 14, as soon as he saw the complete text of the letter published in two newspapers, a very irritated Benedict XVI picked up the telephone and ordered that his confirmation of Ruini as president of the CEI be made public immediately. The pope’s order was so peremptory that the Vatican press office released the news before any of the other communications of the day.

By confirming Ruini, the pope invalidated the letter of Romeo, a.k.a Sodano, which had pegged Ruini as a has-been.

* * *

There’s something else that makes Sodano’s remaining in office questionable. Among the new cardinals chosen by the pope, there are personalities who constitute a living contradiction of the ecclesiastical geopolitics dear to the secretary of state.

For example, Sodano has always pursued a very submissive policy with China, in agreement with the most pro-Chinese of the cardinals in the curia, Roger Etchegaray of France, the author of a book on this subject that is almost utterly silent on the oppression of which Christians are the victims in that country.

Sodano 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 provoked great irritation among the persecuted Chinese Catholics, and in particular with the combative bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, according to whom religious liberty should come before any sort of diplomatic accommodation.
It is bishop Zen who is the most closely watched of the new cardinals chosen by Benedict XVI. He will be the one to suggest the how and the when for a new policy on China for the Church.

Apart from Zen, pope Ratzinger wanted to create two other cardinals in Asia, a continent that Sodano has overlooked but which the present pope sees as crucial.

One of these is the archbishop of Seoul, and the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, who is impatient to enter as a missionary into North Korea and is a staunch defender of life and of the family in a country that is a theatre of reckless experimentation in biotechnology.

Another is the archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio B. Rosales. The Philippines is the most Catholic country in Asia, with millions of emigrants all over the world, many of whom are persecuted on account of their faith in the Muslim countries where they work.

Benedict XVI has also brought about a correction of the previous Vatican line in regard to Islam. In removing Archbishop Fitzgerald from the curia, the pope has said the last word on the symposia that he loved to organize with Muslim leaders like sheikh Yussef-Al-Qaradwi or the heads of Al-Azhar, who signed ceremonious appeals for peace with the Vatican and then, the next day, inflamed the crowds by exalting holy war and the suicide terrorists.

The change of course desired by Benedict XVI also draws the Church closer to Israel. Sodano was a great admirer of Yasser Arafat, and is a supporter of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who is ardently pro-Palestinian. But Pope Ratzinger immediately flanked Sabbah with a more moderate auxiliary who will succeed him in two years, Fouad Twal of Jordan, previously the archbishop of Tunis. And is planning to appoint as the bishop of the Hebrew Christians who live in the state of Israel the present custodian of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is viewed very favorably by the Israeli authorities.

Who will be the next secretary of state and when he will be nominated is a secret that Benedict XVI is guarding carefully. But it is certain that Sodano is on his way out.

With him gone, also gone will be a barrier to a decision on the fate of the powerful founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, with whom Sodano is very close. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has completed a thoroughly detailed preliminary investigation of the accusations against Maciel’s sexual abuse of his seminarians and violation of the sacrament of confession.

Last Good Friday, shortly before he was elected pope, Ratzinger indicated this sort of filth as one of the evils that must be eliminated from the Church.

The complete text of the letter sent to the Italian bishops without the pope’s knowledge:

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 upcoming 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.

Until then, I warmly thank you for the help that you, through the agency of this Apostolic Nunciature, shall desire to give the Successor of Peter in such an important and delicate matter.

Paolo Romeo, Apostolic Nuncio
Rome, January 26, 2006

The Vatican press release from February 14, 2006, invalidating the letter:
The Holy Father has confirmed Cardinal Camillo Ruini, his vicar general for the diocese of Rome, as president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, donec aliter provideatur.

The Latin formula donec aliter provideatur means until further notice.
In other words: Ruini has been confirmed for an undetermined length of time.

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