from issue no. 01/02 - 2006

CONSISTORY. The choices of Benedict XVI

By small steps

The choices made by Pope Ratzinger were made known on 22 February at the end of the Wednesday general audience, with a smile and the almost slightly self-mocking attitude that he sometimes likes to adopt, almost as if to say: just look at the things I’m called upon to do! An analysis by the Vatican expert of La Stampa

by Marco Tosatti

Left, William J. Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Left, William J. Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

A Consistory for the creation of new cardinals is a mosaic made up of many different elements. In first place there are those one can call the “dutiful acts”: the cardinals’ hats that are bestowed almost automatically, because in the contrary case the mission of those who don’t receive them would be much belittled, to the extent of influencing the continued holding of a post. Then – but the list has not been compiled according to a hierarchical scale of priorities – there are the demands of tradition, whereby a certain city has historically long enjoyed the privilege of having a cardinal as head of its Catholic community, that is a person who belongs to that relatively exclusive circle of men who can boast of being advisers to the Pope. In the past, when Catholicism counted in politics also, the purple was part of the diplomatic game, with historical tug-o’-wars between Holy See and the crowned heads of Europe. Now a nomination to the College of Cardinals is greeted by governments with formal enthusiasm in most cases; with – along with the praise – the mental reservation, “will he give me more bother?” in not a few developing countries where often the Church constitutes a bulwark against unbridled desires and power; with hardly disguised hostility and aggravation by regimes quarrelling with Rome; with indifference, or something like it, by the West that, as Benedict XVI knows very well, is gaily transforming itself into the land of new pagans. But let’s go on with the pieces of the mosaic. Necessity, tradition, and then the “geopolitical” vision of the Pontiff and his closest collaborators; where a voice endowed with more authority can be of more use, a more “noble” presence can constitute a flywheel to add momentum to evangelization. Finally, ideas, convictions, acquaintances, intuitions of the person who at bottom is uniquely responsible for the Consistory, and that is the Pope. With his character, his style, and his agenda; that, in the case of Benedict XVI, as far as one can see, has items that only the Pope reads, given the substantial secretiveness that marks his reign.
With the grid set out, let’s try now to decode the choices of Pope Ratzinger, made known on 22 February last at the end of the Wednesday general audience, with a smile and the almost slightly self-mocking attitude that he sometimes likes to adopt, almost as if to say: just look at the things I’m called upon to do! A small Consistory: fifteen cardinals in all, of which twelve electors, to complete the “roof” (that he has said clearly that he doesn’t want to go beyond) of a hundred and twenty cardinals for a future, and we hope far off, conclave. But it’s interesting to note that between 24 March – the date of the celebration of the Consistory – and 29 May 2007 as many as fourteen will reach eighty. It’s a widely held view in the Curia that Benedict XVI, who will be 79 next 16 April, wants to set aside the three-yearly pattern, brought in by the “young” Wojtyla, in the creation of cardinals, and plug the leaks that open in the College of Cardinals with greater frequency and smaller numbers. Everything leads one to suppose that before the summer of 2007 another “batch” of cardinals may be created. So, among other things, the anxieties and distress at the exclusions, important and relatively numerous, caused by Ratzinger’s first appointment with the Sacred College will be soothed. Or, if nothing else, the puzzlement. Because in fact it could hardly be taken for granted that the titulars of such important diocese as Paris, Barcelona and Dublin would be left without the purple. It’s true that Paris has Lustiger, but leaving the capital city of the “fille aînée”, the eldest daughter of the Church, without a hat for the archbishop in office… Not to speak of most Catholic (once) Ireland, or Catalan pride. And let’s not mention the expectations of the Curia. But here the argument becomes really complex; because the fact that only three people from within the pontifical palaces – William Joseph Levada, Augustine Vallini and Franc Rodé – have been honored with the title of cardinal authorizes one to think that truly after Easter («like a good German parish priest», Cardinal Lehmann remarked) Benedict XVI means to undertake a careful review of the central government of the Church.
Is it possible to pick out clear lines in the choices made by the Pope? Let’s try to point out some features that then will merit going into. The first, obvious, is geographical: as many as three out of the nine diocesans cardinal belong to Asia. China, the Philippines and Korea. Then the character of a good percentage of the future cardinals: they are battlers, clever, capable of dealing with the complexities of the world in the third millennium, but they are not afraid of taking up unpopular positions, or of denouncing situations of injustice. In some cases a role may have been played by doctrinal affinity with the Pope, who has shown he is not afraid of trusting his own judgment; and his own experience. It shouldn’t be forgotten, in this particular department, as in the other fields of government, that for various decades Joseph Ratzinger has seen pass before him, on ad limina visits, all the bishops of the world (and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a required stop, as was that for the Clergy, during their days in Rome); thanks to his exceptional memory Benedict XVI has an exceptionally well-stocked “pond” from which to fish out – or refuse to fish – those he thinks suitable for the various tasks. Let me add that the Congregation he headed is also that which gathers the not particularly honorable mentions from all over the world. And Pope Ratzinger certainly doesn’t suffer from memory blanks.
Joseph Ratzinger with Paul VI at his first mass as cardinal, 29 June 1977

Joseph Ratzinger with Paul VI at his first mass as cardinal, 29 June 1977

Asia, as I said, seems privileged. Even if it certainly wasn’t numbers that lay behind the choice; the Catholics in Hong Kong are in a minority of 3.5%; as in South Korea (6.6%). Even in the Philippines, where instead they’re in the majority (83%, the only country in Asia with a Catholic majority, along with little East Timor), the absolute figures are not comparable with those of the Old Continent. But Benedict XVI has looked to the future. And Asian Catholicism seems very much more vibrant than that of Europe. At least half of those faithful to Rome in those vast countries goes to mass on Sundays; the baptisms (mainly of adults) are growing at five per cent a year. The statistics on “staff” show that in Asia there is growth in the numbers of clergy and of religious personnel (1,422 up in 2004), while in the same period in Europe there was a drop of 1,876 units. Finally it has to be stressed that Asia represents the continent of the future for the Church also in terms of the flock, and not just of its pastors: almost half of the Asian population (that numbers 3.9 billion people overall, two thirds of the world population) is made up of young people below the age of 25; 80% of the non-Christians of the world live on that continent. John Paul II said: « Asia is our common task for the third millennium»; a conviction that Benedict XVI apparently shares.
Naturally it was the nomination of Joseph Zen that stirred the most curiosity; it is highly likely – at least judging by Beijing’s reaction - that the nomination has not been diplomatically prepared; but, as the experts point out, Hong Kong still enjoys a particular regime; outside pressure on China (motivated by rancor of a commercial kind) in regard to human rights, and in consequence also religious, is growing, and the government cannot ignore it completely; so it was not opportune, even if it had wanted, to let itself go in over-reaction. The Catholic Church in China is experiencing a new spring, and probably the future steps will lead towards greater unity between the two “branches”. For these reasons Joseph Zen, who has spent years teaching in China and knows seminarians, priests and bishops of the official and underground Church very well, is the pivot for Benedict XVI on which this process will develop further. And in effect he has already worked to strengthen relations between the two branches of the Church, by whom he is deeply respected; and the new honor can only endow him with greater authority.
The choice also of Nicholas Cheong, archbishop of Seoul, is a sign of the future; it is a look towards the North, where a regime of almost unthinkable cruelty reminds one of a passed epoch, that of the Cold War. While the decision to give a cardinal to Manila (in a certain sense “dutiful”, for historical and ecclesiastical geopolitical reasons) takes on particular meaning from the standpoint of the evangelization of the whole continent. The Philippines, as we well know, is a country of emigrants; there are millions of Philippino workers in the world, and also in Asia; and that makes them a lay missionary force of great penetration and effectiveness, also and even in countries - the Arab ones of the Gulf, or even in Saudi Arabia – where simple testimony to one’s faith can take on shades of heroism.
What Benedict XVI thinks of Europe, and of the West in general, from the point of view of the faith, is no secret to anybody. But I think it important to look at what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in 2004, at a conference reported by the Zenit agency. «The Church cannot substantially recognize itself in the category “West”. It would be historically, empirically, theologically wrong. Historically, we know that Christianity was born in the crossover of Europe, Asia and Africa, and that also indicates something of its inner essence. It was born in a coming together of cultures as capacity, possibility and challenge of a synthesis of cultures and as possibility of transcending cultures in something that is the human being as such and that precedes and transcends cultures. In its beginnings, the expansion of Christianity moved equally to the East, towards China, India, Persia, Arabia, and to the West. Unfortunately, after the birth of Islam, most of this oriental Christendom disappeared. But not entirely, because elements of these historic Christendoms exist that testify its universality, and also European Christendom divides into West and East. Hence the spread of the Church in relation to our culture is very great and is split in different cultures. Empirically, not only do we have this great historical inheritance, but Christianity is present, with minorities of recognized spiritual strength, on all the continents. The axis of Christendom shifts ever more toward the new continents, toward Africa, Asia, Latin America. Europe is still an essential source for the development of Christianity, nevertheless it is beginning to emarginate itself with the debate on its identity… It is not political behavior dictated by the need not to lose sympathy for the Church in Africa, Asia or Latin America, it is theological behavior. The Church cannot simply recognize itself as West, but must always again transcend its Western definition and truly reach out toward universality, above all transcending itself toward the divine, that is the only reality that can create a communication of cultures». It’s a historical reading when done by one who is a cardinal and scholar; but it shifts immediately into the basis for a strategy when the person who formulates it becomes the responsible in chief of the Catholic Church. And perhaps it can give an insight into the direction Benedict XVI will take.
Left in the photo, Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, archbishop of Seoul, with Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, archbishop emeritus of Seoul

Left in the photo, Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, archbishop of Seoul, with Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, archbishop emeritus of Seoul

And let us come to the second of the features I think most characteristic of this Consistory. Benedict XVI clearly likes battlers; people who smile a lot, speak in low voices, don’t lose their temper, but always go around with a sword (ethical and theological, obviously) at their side, and are not afraid to use it, if and when necessary. Let us take, for example, Jean-Pierre Ricard, president of the French bishops and archbishop of Bordeaux. A smiling Marseillais who, however, has not been sparing of speeches or interviews against «the perverse effects of the law on religious symbols», against an exasperated conception of the secular, in defense of the rights of dying patients, against homosexual marriage, and against what he has described as the «freedom-destroying effects» of the French law on homophobia. He has not been afraid to write to President Chirac (pro-Turkey) to remind him that the Turkish candidacy to the EU «must be considered according to the criterion, among others, of respect for religious freedom». Not only that: as member of the «Ecclesia Dei» Commission, the one created to facilitate full ecclesial community of the groups most attached to tradition, he has assumed attitudes in dialogue unimaginable only a few years ago in the highly ideological atmosphere of the French Church. Among other things, Ricard had already “missed out on” the Consistory of 2003; so, since the bestowal of more than one hat per nation in such a slender bunch is unimaginable, Vingt-Trois, freshly appointed, can wait for the next round. Cañizares, archbishop of Toledo, jokes about the fact that they call him «a little Ratzinger»; but he unites to his doctrinal ethical stamina a great capacity for dialogue, even in Zapatero’s Spain. Many things might be said of Carlo Caffarra, but not that he is a man afraid of exposing his ideas, no matter how controversial they may appear to current political correctness. And Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, is a man who doesn’t fear difficult situations: called a first time to clean up the diocese of Palm Beach, overwhelmed by the paedophilia scandal, Boston was entrusted to him immediately afterwards, and forgive me if you think that’s little. There’s no point in speaking of Stanislao Dziwisz, so well known and loved is the man who shared much of the life of Karol Wojtyla, and keeps alive his devotion even after his death; whereas among the pastors required to face crucial challenges for their country (and for the Church), the archbishop of Caracas, Jorge Freed Urosa Savino, deserves mention, the leading figure among the other prelates of the country in a hard-fought battle for the survival of democracy in Venezuela. Being faced with an opponent like Chávez; and forgive me if you think that’s little. One shouldn’t then forget that the three “Asians”, spoken of above, also have the temperament of fighters; in different ways and in different spheres, but without yielding and compromises with the various “strong powers” they encounter. And to finish off the picture there is William Joseph Levada. Even if when someone asked whether he would be a “Rottweiler” of the Faith, he replied: «a Cocker spaniel, rather», the new Prefect has already shown some teeth; both in opposing the request from the US bishops to postpone the emergence of the document on the admission of gays in seminaries, and in some very delicate personal inquiries. But this looks precisely like the style of Pope Ratzinger; and it’s just a year ago that he lamented the «dirt in the Church».

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