Italy, United States, Brazil. From the Vatican to the Conquest of the World
The ambitious captain is the cardinal secretary of state, with the help of “L’Osservatore Romano.” The objective is to subject the national Churches to itself, on the terrain of politics. But the bishops are resisting and reacting. The lesson of the Italian case
by Sandro Magister
ROME, February 11, 2010 – After more than two weeks of silence since the new explosion of controversy, the Vatican secretariat of state, with a statement issued two days ago, has flatly denied the accusations that began last summer against Dino Boffo but since then have changed targets, raising their sights to the director of “L’Osservatore Romano,” Giovanni Maria Vian, and to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone himself.
In the statement, reproduced in its entirety further below, it does not only deny that either of them had released or approved the fliers, later shown to be false, that had defamed Boffo and forced him to resign as director of the newspaper of the Italian bishops “Avvenire”; it does not only reject “a defamatory campaign that involves the Roman pontiff himself”; but it states that Benedict XVI “reaffirms his full trust in his collaborators.”
Rome has spoken; is the question closed? Not quite. The Boffo case has opened eyes to a reality of interecclesial conflicts that go beyond the mechanics of the affair. Conflicts and disorders that have not been addressed or removed by the denial of a few days ago. And of which the Boffo case is only one chapter, very Italian but ultimately global, whose key to interpretation was already there in the very first phase.
On that day, August 28, the newspaper “il Giornale” directed by Vittorio Feltri published the first fatal broadside against the director of “Avvenire” at the time, who was accused, on the basis of legal charges presented as indisputable, of harassing “the wife of the man with whom he had had a relationship.”
But there was something else that morning: in “la Repubblica,” the leading secular and progressive Italian newspaper, the “theologian” Vito Mancuso accused Cardinal Bertone of sitting at table with Herod, meaning prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom the secretary of state had in fact planned a meeting.
On the afternoon of that same day, “L’Osservatore Romano” showed right away which side it was on.
Gloves off, the newspaper of the Holy See defended Cardinal Bertone with a front-page editorial by its leading commentator, Lucetta Scaraffia. But it dispatched the bishops’ defense of Boffo with just three lines from a news agency, on one of the inside pages.
To those who asked about the reason for the uneven treatment, Vian answered that the Church’s real enemy is the one who attacks Bertone, “and therefore the pope,” not the one who goes after Boffo. According to Vian, “Il Giornale” was even too kind toward Boffo, writing about him with “exemplary moderation” and with “Anglo-Saxon style.”
Three days later, when the attack on Boffo was at its height, Vian became even less evenhanded. He not only didn’t defend Boffo and “Avvenire,” he criticized them for compounding the damage to the supreme Vatican authorities. He said so to “Corriere della Sera,” in an interview that, as he later made known, had “the approval” of Cardinal Bertone.
And what did Boffo and “Avvenire” represent, if not the project of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference from 1991 to 2007, that “cultural project of Christian orientation” that Vian then mocked by comparing it to a “phoenix”?
The story continued with Boffo’s resignation. With Cardinal Bertone, who confided to a very talkative politician friend, “My biggest mistake was making Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco head of the CEI, in Ruini’s place.” With Feltri, who countered that the fliers accusing Boffo of immoral conduct were false, and retracted, blaming the “reliable informant, I would say beyond suspicion,” who had given them to him as true. And still further with Feltri, who specified that this source was “a figure of the Church who should be trusted institutionally,” describing him with details that made the Vatican, the director of “L’Osservatore Romano” and its editor, think that he was Cardinal Bertone: an identification denied by the statement from the secretariat of state on February 9.
The antagonism between the secretariat of state and the bishops’ conferences is a classic of the Church’s recent history. As soon as Bertone was appointed secretary of state, in September of 2006, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to subject the CEI to his leadership. He maneuvered to have Cardinal Ruini replaced by a second-tier bishop, docile to the dictates from the other side of the Tiber. Then he turned back to Bagnasco, and as soon as he was instated, on March 25, 2007, he wrote to him in black and white, in an open letter, that the real head would be he himself, Bertone, “concerning relations with political institutions.” The CEI rebelled, beginning with its new president, and from that point on it interpreted each of Bertone’s actions with the suspicion that it concealed this presumption of command.
The current secretary of state is also isolated in the Vatican. The veteran diplomats won’t forgive him for not being one of them. And in fact, Bertone did not come from diplomacy, but from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, where he was entrusted with the most thorny and turbulent cases, from the secret of Fatima to Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. And he flourished there with tireless ardor, except that, in the second case, he saw the bizarre archbishop whom he thought had been contained go off the deep end yet again.
Bertone compensates for his internal isolation with a profusion of external activities of every kind: celebrations, appearances, anniversaries, addresses, inaugurations, interviews.
His predecessor, Agostino Casaroli, a great diplomat in office from 1979 to 1990, gave a total of 40 speeches. In a little more than three years, Bertone has produced 365.
And then the travel. He has gone to Argentina, Croatia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Poland, Mexico, where he met and spoke with heads of states and bishops, ambassadors and professors, with an agenda similar to that of the papal voyages.
He hasn’t traveled a long time abroad for a year, and has dedicated himself more to governing the curia, which reports to him by statute. But the past year was also the most harrowing, in terms of the number and seriousness of disasters, from the Williamson case to the Boffo case.
Bertone’s only secure fortress is “L’Osservatore Romano,” with Vian as director. The bond between the two is very close, punctuated by the telephone call that they share each day, late in the evening. And the latter’s responsibilities are not limited to the historic Vatican newspaper.
Bertone has also entrusted Vian with the role that, at the time of John Paul II, had been filled by Joaquin Navarro Valls: that of orchestrating the Italian and global media from behind the scenes.
Vian does this successfully here and there. He is the Vatican pundit most consulted by “Corriere della Sera.” The proximity between Vian and “Corriere” is corroborated by his friendship with the editorialist Ernesto Galli della Loggia, husband of Lucetta Scaraffia, who is in turn a prominent writer for “L’Osservatore,” and with Paolo Mieli, who as the director of the most widely read Italian newspaper was in 2005 one of the most tenacious secular adversaries of Cardinal Ruini in the battle over the referendum on assisted reproduction.
Incredible but true: the most bitter moment in the clash between “L’Osservatore Romano” and “Avvenire,” before the Boffo case, was another great bioethical battle, over the life of Eluana Englaro, between 2008 and 2009. With the newspaper of the Italian bishops absolutely committed to keeping alive this young woman in a vegetative state. And with the Vatican newspaper much more taciturn, sometimes even opposing the “unconvincing” arguments and “exalted and showy” tones of Boffo’s newspaper. Beyond whom the ultimate target was again the Ruinian project of a Church highly present and active in the fields of culture and politics, a Church that is “better contested than irrelevant.”
The Vatican’s failed attempt to dominate the newspaper of the CEI is therefore one chapter in a struggle between much more than two newspapers: between two visions of Church governance, on a worldwide scale.
In addition to the Italian Church, in fact, the Vatican secretariat of state has put itself at odds with other national Churches, including some of the most vigorous.
The actors and the script are almost always the same: Cardinal Bertone, “L’Osservatore Romano,” a very lively national episcopate, battles in defense of the life and the family.
On a war footing with Rome today, among others, are the two most numerous episcopates in the world, that of the United States and that of Brazil.
In the United States, the combative wing of the bishops, headed by Chicago archbishop Cardinal Francis George, was first stirred up by an editorial in “L’Osservatore Romano” that, in evaluating the first hundred days of Barack Obama’s presidency, not only gave him a positive assessment, but acknowledged the new president for a “rebalancing in favor of motherhood,” which according to the American bishops was far from the truth, because the exact opposite had happened.
A second element of conflict was the decision of the University of Notre Dame, the most renowned Catholic university in the United States, to give Obama an honorary degree. About eighty of the bishops rebelled against the honor being given to a political leader whose positions on bioethics are contrary to Church teaching. And before and after the degree from Notre Dame, they manifested their disappointment at seeing their criticisms almost completely ignored by “L’Osservatore Romano.”
Other disagreements broke out between the United States and Rome over withholding communion from Catholic politicians who support abortion. Many of the American bishops refuse to compromise on this, and see the silence of the secretariat of state and of the Vatican newspaper as a discrediting of them, as well as a moral surrender.
The desire to have peaceful institutional relations with the established powers, of whatever shade they may be, is typical of Bertone. In this, he is applying a classic canon of Vatican diplomacy, which is traditionally “realist,” even at the cost of clashing with the national episcopates that are often critical of their respective governments.
But the effects often seem contradictory. Last March, an article in “L’Osservatore Romano” disowned the Brazilian bishop of Recife for condemning the authors of a double abortion on a child mother. But the Brazilian bishops saw this as a betrayal by Rome while they were fighting a tough battle with the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over the full liberalization of abortion.
The author of the article, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, had written it at Bertone’s request. And so to the protest of the Brazilian bishops was added a rebellion within the pontifical academy for life, of which Fisichella is president. A good number of academy members called for his dismissal, and some of them appealed to pope Joseph Ratzinger, who ordered the congregation for the doctrine of the faith to issue a note of “clarification,” in defense of the bishop of Recife.?
But Fisichella will remain in his place, as will Vian, and Bertone, who has just been reconfirmed.
In the Boffo case, Pope Benedict “knows.” And he personally sees things more the way cardinals Bagnasco and Ruini do, rather than like his secretary of state.
But the pope’s stride is that of the perennial Church. Long and patient.
STATEMENT FROM THE SECRETARIAT OF STATE
Since January 23 there has been a multiplication, especially in much of the Italian media, of news and reconstructions concerning matters connected to the resignation of the director of the Italian Catholic newspaper “Avvenire,” with the clear intention of implicating the director of “L’Osservatore Romano,” even going so far as to impute responsibility to the cardinal secretary of state. These news stories and reconstructions have no foundation.
In particular, it is false that officials of the Vatican gendarmerie or the director of “L’Osservatore Romano” transmitted documents that are at the basis of the resignation, last September 3, of the director of “Avvenire”; it is false that the director of “L’Osservatore Romano gave – or transmitted or endorsed in any way – information about these documents, and it is false that he wrote under a pseudonym, or inspired, articles for other publishers.
It seems clear from the multiplication of the most incredible arguments and hypotheses – repeated in the media with a truly singular consistency – that everything is based on unfounded convictions, with the intention of attributing to the director of “L’Osservatore Romano,” in a gratuitous and calumnious way, an unprovoked, unreasonable, and malicious action. What is taking place is a defamation campaign against the Holy See, including the Roman Pontiff himself.
The Holy Father Benedict XVI, who has always been kept informed, deplores these unjust and injurious attacks, reaffirms his full trust in his collaborators, and prays that those who truly have the good of the Church at heart may work by every means available so that truth and justice may be affirmed.
From the Vatican, February 9, 2010
STATEMENT FROM THE ITALIAN BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE
The Presidency of the CEI welcomes the statement of the Secretariat of State inspired by the fundamental and fully shared desire to prevent the good of the Church from being compromised by news and reconstructions that have given rise to a defamation campaign against the Holy See.
Making this same concern our own, we hope that today’s statement of position may contribute to calming the climate, marked by a painful matter that in recent months has gone beyond its actual significance.
Still alive and comforting is the knowledge that the Church is upheld by the strength of her Lord, while we renew our commitment to work for the affirmation of truth and justice.
Rome, February 9, 2010
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.