Settimo Cielodi Sandro Magister
05 mar 19
From Santa Marta an Order Has Gone Forth. But Cardinal Bassetti Is Not Obeying
Italy is Pope Francis’s backyard, in addition to being his country of origin. And so it comes as no surprise that he should take a strong interest in the who and how of leadership at the CEI, the Italian episcopal conference.
This has been seen since 2013, when Francis imposed as secretary general of the organism the semi-unknown Nunzio Galantino, who essentially took over – strong as he was with the authority of his backer, the pope – for the president of the CEI at the time, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco.
It was seen again in 20015 at the general assembly of the Italian Church gathered in Florence, where Jorge Mario Bergoglio acted as absolute protagonist and where his trusted henchmen – Galantino himself, but also the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, director of “La Civiltà Cattolica” – insisted on demanding “a broad involvement of the people of God, in a synodal process not restricted to the élites of Catholic thought.”
Since 2017 the CEI has had as its new president Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, in whom Francis is showing he places more trust than in his predecessor, and since 2018 has had as its new secretary Bishop Stefano Russo in the place of Galantino, who has in any case remained in the good graces of the pope, who has promoted him as president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
But even in this new configuration, Spadaro continues to act as the papal “longa manus.” And at the end of January of this year he must have crossed the line, seeing how the leadership of the CEI felt unjustly blamed.
Spadaro launched his attack with an article in “La Civiltà Cattolica” in which he again demanded “a synod for the Italian Church,” implicitly accusing the leadership of the CEI of having “locked away in a cabinet” the “prophetic” speech that Francis gave at the conference in Florence, and of having fallen back into the “old forms of rhetoric” and into “clericalism.”
Settimo Cielo gave prompt coverage to all of this, in a post on February 7:
As was natural, the presidency of the CEI did not take kindly at all to this hostile attack by Fr. Spadaro. But neither was it able to mount a strong immediate counterattack, given the proximity between Spadaro and the pope and their acting in concert.
Cardinal Bassetti made a first attempt in a subdued voice, in a conversation reported by “Avvenire” on February 10, to clarify that in the Italian Church a “synodal” process is already underway “from the bottom up,” for example in the construction of a “civic network” among Catholics involved in politics.
But meanwhile “Avvenire,” which is the newspaper of the CEI but even more the organ of Casa Santa Marta, on January 31 had republished in its entirety the article by Spadaro.
And on February 2, “L’Osservatore Romano” had played its part in the maneuver, with a front-page interview with Rieti bishop and former CEI undersecretary Domenico Pompili, who endorsed and reissued Spadaro’s proposal of a synod for the Italian Church.
Not only that. Even after Bassetti’s first subdued statement in his own defense, two other bishops, both fervent fans of Bergoglio, took to the field to give assistance to Spadaro.
The first, with a letter published in “Avvenire” on February 17, was Modena bishop and president of the CEI commission for the doctrine of the faith Erio Castellucci. Who, in addition to reiterating that “the time has come for a synod for the Italian Church,” took the opportunity to denounce the “short circuit seen in Italy a few decades ago when, after the fall of the ‘ideological’ parties, the bishops undertook a compensatory effort that ended up squashing the political initiative of the Catholic laity,” undermining in its own way the strategy for Italy of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Cardinal Camillo Ruini.
The second, with a letter published in the “Corriere della Sera” of February 18 on the editorials page entitled “A synod for Italy,” was Corrado Lorefice, appointed archbishop of Palermo by Bergoglio but also a disciple of the “school of Bologna,” a famous international coterie of progressive Catholic intellectuals.
Both Castellucci’s article and that of Lorefice were retweeted by an enthusiastic Fr. Spadaro, promptly receiving likes from Alberto Melloni, a Church historian and the current director of the Bologna institute, and Massimo Faggioli, his spokesman in the United States.
Curiously, however, neither Spadaro nor any of these figures who supported him in attacking the presidency of the CEI made reference to the most important initiative that the CEI itself has been planning for some time: an “Encounter of reflection and spirituality for peace in the Mediterranean,” which next year will gather in Bari the bishops of all the countries bordering on this sea, from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
It is an encounter conceived by Cardinal Bassetti in the wake of the “Mediterranean conversations” organized seventy years ago in Florence by a great figure of Italian political Catholicism, Giorgio La Pira, whose cause of beatification is at an advanced phase.
The presidency of the CEI has staked a great deal on this conference, and will certainly not be overjoyed to revolutionize its agenda to obey an article from “La Civiltà Cattolica.”
In fact, it is precisely to this encounter that Cardinal Bassetti referred in his second and much more resolute counterattack against the assault of Spadaro and company, on the front page of “L’Osservatore Romano” of February 27, in an interview signed by the director of the Vatican newspaper, Andrea Monda.
Cardinal Bassetti’s thought is summarized well in these final exchanges of the interview:
Q: The pope has spoken, since the conference of Florence, of synodality, which amounts to an invitation to take on a style to be maintained on all levels, from the parish to the CEI, structures that perhaps are to be reconsidered. To start this process, is it perhaps necessary to go through a concrete event, as for example a thematic synod for the entire Catholic Church?
A: That of the synod is a good idea, but it must be developed over time. At this moment it is fundamental to explore some criteria of synodality, and above all to prepare ourselves for the “Encounter of reflection and spirituality for peace in the Mediterranean” that will take place in February of 2020. A unique assembly of its kind, organized by the Italian Church, which will permit the encounter among the bishops of the countries that border the Mediterranean and which, above all, will employ synodality to foster ecclesial discernment on the problems and future of the entire region. The encounter in Bari, which takes its inspiration from an intuition of La Pira, will therefore be a concrete application of the synodal method to address several questions of great importance for Italy and Europe, as for example interreligious dialogue, peace in the Mediterranean basin, and international migration.
It remains to be explained why “L’Osservatore Romano,” in presenting this energetic clarification by Bassetti, should have given it such a drab headline: “The task and duty of Italian Catholics.”
And it also remains to be explained why “Avvenire,” the newspaper of the CEI, should not have reproduced the interview with its cardinal president online. And why on paper it should have furnished only a modest and hardly prominent summary, on the bottom of page 17.