Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ratzinger's Revolutionary-in-Chief

"Benedetto è il Papa, ma Bertone è il Sommo Pontefice" -- "Benedict is the Pope, but Bertone is the Supreme Pontiff."

That's the word from Rome these days as Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone keeps consolidating the sort of all-powerful brief his recent predecessors as Secretary of State could only dream of.

Every pontificate has one figure of overarching influence: John Paul II had his private secretary of four decades, now-Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz; Paul VI's über-aide was his Sostituto, Giovanni Benelli, who was rewarded shortly before his master's death with the archbishopric of Florence and -- at a "snap" consistory called with the prime intent of ensuring his presence in the next conclave -- the red hat. (In a historic irony, while Benelli died prematurely at 61 five years later, one of the other three cardinals created with him was the freshly-ordained archbishop of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger.)

For all these, it's been seven decades since the official who's job is being the Pope's chief lieutenant has actually been that, the last instance being Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who succeeded Pope Pius XI after serving as his predecessor's voice, eyes, ears and, thanks to his unprecedented global travel, his unchallenged messenger at home and abroad.

Almost 81, Benedict XVI "realizes he doesn't have the energy to do everything," as one curial hand put it. While the pontiff has devoted much of his time to teaching -- writing his catecheses, letters and homilies, to say nothing of the books -- he's reserved the appointment of bishops and, to a lesser extent, questions of liturgy as his prime ad intra pursuits. The rest is largely left to Bertone, the 73 year-old Salesian who served as Cardinal Ratzinger's #2 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (where the former is still said to keep a more-than-gentle hand) before being named archbishop of Genoa in 2002 and a cardinal the following year.

Returning to his boss' side in 2006 as the Vatican's "prime minister" and chief diplomat, the football/soccer enthusiast with no diplomatic training and a penchant for blunt talk has since carved himself a purview including facets as the pontiff's chief spokesman, loyalty enforcer, administrative delegate and, most crucially, reinventor of the Roman Curia in his own image.

Sixteen months on, the ripple-effects of the "Vice-Pope" have only increased with time, and exponentially at that.

Among other aspects, an unprecedented flood of Salesians have been called to the episcopacy from the community's ranks, the Vatican offices have become more Italianized (with international veterans said to be "feeling the chill"), his Genoa secretary and MC Guido Marini has been brought in to implement the "restoration" of papal liturgy, and after Monday's strong message to the opening of their General Congregation, one attuned Jesuit remarked that Cardinal Franc Rode's homily bore "all the fingerprints" of the Secretary of State. As concerns these shores, Bertone's credited (or blamed) with successfully persuading Benedict that the initially-planned Boston stop on his first US visit in mid-April would unwisely make the sex-abuse crisis the frame of the entire six-day trip, and it's said that his leanings have already been made known on the Stateside church's Big Story of 2008: the appointment of a new archbishop of New York.

Given the perceived resistance within the Curial ranks from loyalists of his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano -- who, after retiring, delayed his departure from the Secretary's traditional apartment in the Apostolic Palace, leaving Bertone consigned for months to St John's Tower in the Vatican Gardens -- Bertone chose a week in November to send two unmistakable signals, exiling Sodano's "favorite son" from the diplomatic corps and announcing plans for a first-ever system of "merit-based" (read: loyalty-based) pay for Curial employees.

That week in November just happened to coincide with Sodano's 80th birthday.

Made Camerlengo by Benedict last April (and thus responsible for the affairs of the Holy See in the event of its vacancy), circles close to the papal apartment have spoken to a sense that Bertone isn't just being given the broad portfolio to carry it out for the reigning Pope, but with a thought that, like Pacelli before him, the deputy is being "groomed" to ascend even further.

In the new edition of The Tablet, Robert Mickens explores the Revolution and its leader:
Now in his seventeenth month in the post, the northern Italian cardinal has not only had to deal with the usual diplomatic controversies that come with the territory, but he has also had to cope with negative news reports that he himself has often generated. These have mainly resulted from his own personal penchant for frequently "issuing statements" in informal press scrums only to chide reporters later for quoting him "out of context". Thus he routinely has accused the "secularist" media for waging an "orchestrated campaign" to discredit, embarrass and attack the Catholic Church. This, in turn, has helped feed a growing victim mentality among many Catholics, especially in Italy.

But Cardinal Bertone's biggest obstacles are not from the outside world. Rather, they are found among certain segments of the Roman Curia where a wall of passive-aggressive opposition to him was already forming in the weeks when his appointment as Secretary of State was still just a rumour.

The curial "obstructionists" and other critics are still convinced that the cardinal lacks essential qualifications for such an internationally important job. Some of them quietly bristle at his lack of experience as a papal diplomat; for example, he was not groomed at the prestigious Accademia Ecclesiastica, as were they and most of the cardinal's predecessors of the past 300 years. Some point to what they call the cardinal's unspectacular academic career; one of his former confrères claims that professors at the Rome-based Salesian University awarded the then-Fr Bertone (also a professor at the time) his canon law doctorate behind closed doors, rather than requiring him to defend his thesis in the more customary setting of a "public defence". And still others consider the Secretary of State's cultural background as far too limited for his post; he has only ever lived in Italy and, while he claims familiarity with several foreign languages (but not English), he is not known to speak any of them with proficiency....

The Pope probably has few genuine and long-time admirers or supporters more eager to serve him than the strapping Salesian cardinal. During nearly eight years (1995-2003) as secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the then-Archbishop Bertone proved his worth. It is well known that he did much of the so-called "heavy lifting" for the prefect at the time - Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. And evidently the then future Pope never forgot it. As Benedict XVI approaches the third anniversary of his pontificate, it appears increasingly more plausible that he may have picked Cardinal Bertone as his Secretary of State for the very reasons the curial "obstructionists" have opposed him.

In choosing an Accademia "outsider", the Pope was perhaps hoping for a right-hand man that would help him rid the Roman Curia of "church bureaucrats" and bring in new personnel more in line with his own theological and ecclesiological thinking. And while few people are under the illusion that the cardinal alone is making the major personnel decisions, his influence on the Pope cannot be discounted. How else does one explain the ever-increasing Italian population in the middle and upper ranks of the Curia? Or the fact that Italian continues to become more and more the only accepted language in what the Second Vatican Council hoped would be a fully "internationalised" papal curia?

Cardinal Bertone's view on this is conditioned by the fact that he is a Salesian. "I am and remain a priest of Don Bosco," he never tires of repeating. Although now present all over the world, the Salesians are undoubtedly the "most Italian" of all the major religious orders in the Church - even more so than the Franciscans. And having an especially outgoing Salesian as his top aide adds extra punch to the more cerebral Pope Benedict's main cultural project; namely, strengthening the Catholic Church's influence in Italy and, even more importantly, reawakening the Christian identity of Europe....

Cardinal Bertone has tried to emulate some of the style of Pacelli, the future Pius XII. Despite the enormous intellectual, diplomatic and temperamental differences between the two churchmen, the current Secretary of State has been playing a ubiquitous public role in the past few months in much the same way his predecessor did in the 1930s. He has carried out high-profile and much-publicised travels throughout Eastern and Western Europe. He went to Peru last summer on a scheduled visit that happened to coincide with post-earthquake clean-up efforts. And he was the keynote speaker at a Knights of Columbus convention in the United States, despite not speaking English. He has spoken at universities, business clubs, the annual gathering of Communion and Liberation, and just about any other event that his schedule permits.

He says: "In response to the critics I have to say that from the beginning of my academic activities I have never wanted to close myself in an office to study papers." He adds that even people who hold "the highest and most important roles" in the Church should be out "meeting the people".

This populist touch has won him praise from many people - certainly at the beginning of his appointment. And it has marked a major change from his most recent predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was seen (perhaps unfairly) as a grey Vatican statesman, formal and distant from ordinary people. Most curial officials from the Sodano school of thought - and there are many - are not comfortable with their current boss' activism and are more convinced than ever that the Holy See's diplomatic work is most effective when it is done meticulously and without attracting headlines.
As mentioned above, on his first US visit last year, Bertone served as papal legate to the 125th Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus.

With an intended audience of the entire church in the United States, his keynote address to the Nashville gathering is arguably the most authoritative preview you'll find to April's papal visit, lest anyone hasn't yet read it.

In a press conference during the trip, he also gave his blessing to the burgeoning community of the Nashville Dominicans, calling the "incredibly young" sisters "very beautiful and very intelligent," also hailing Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's work for peace as being "accompanied by the angels."

The "Vice-Pope" then lashed out at "the business created around" the sex abuse scandals, terming it "really unbearable" and praising the US church for "fac[ing] this trial with dignity and courage."