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New cardinals mean new options for the Holy Spirit


After the last flute of champagne was hoisted, the last plate of pasta consumed, the last pair of red socks sold at Gammarelli’s (Rome’s most popular clerical clothing shop), what remains from the pope’s creation of 44 new cardinals Feb. 21 is the event’s political impact.

In the undeclared race for the next pope, the moderates, against all expectations, are back in the hunt.

“Moderate,” in this context, means cardinals who believe the church needs to be more flexible, less controlled from Rome. Their buzzword is “collegiality,” signifying a church whose future is worked out at the local level rather than in curial offices.

For the better part of 20 years, their champion within the College of Cardinals has been Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Italy. A Jesuit, Martini’s intelligence, grace and optimistic spirit have made him the leading papabile for Catholics who feel the progress generated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has in some ways been stalled under Pope John Paul II.

In the last decade, especially since the death in 1996 of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and in 1999 of Basil Hume of Westminster, England, Martini has seemed increasingly isolated. Italians take it for granted that when Martini turns 75 in February 2002 his retirement will be quickly accepted, further diminishing his profile. Martini has put out word that he is not accepting appointments beyond Dec. 31, 2001.

In the meantime, two other factions within the college have gained strength, representing major strains within the church at large.

For the first, purity, not popularity, is the watchword. Concerned with doctrinal clarity, this group believes Catholicism must risk being divisive in order to be faithful. Sympathizers see relativism as the foremost threat to the church.

The champion is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s powerful enforcer of the faith, and its charter is Ratzinger’s recent document Dominus Iesus, which reasserts the superiority of Catholicism over other religions and Christian churches.

Cardinals in this camp include Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto and Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, Italy.

The second group emphasizes Catholicism’s social and political role. The church, from this group’s point of view, is something like an enormous lobby with an agenda combining institutional self-interest (such as funding for Catholic schools) with aggressive defense of human values. This view is well represented in Latin American and Mediterranean hierarchies where church and state have traditionally been close.

Issues for the second group range from abortion to debt relief, from cloning to the civil treatment of homosexual unions. The underlying belief is that a healthy society needs roots in Catholic-Christian values.

The group’s leader is Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Others include Camillo Ruini (the pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome) and Latin Americans such as Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City and Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana.

On doctrinal principles, the first two groups don’t differ much. But because the second is worried not only about clarity but also political effectiveness, its members tend to be more diplomatic, more flexible, more adept in the art of realpolitik.

The groupings are fluid, and many cardinals combine elements of both. A wing of the Sodano faction, for example, blends fierce orthodoxy with far-right politics. Representatives include Cardinals Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia and Jorge Medina Estévez of Chile, both members of the Roman curia.

For most of his pontificate, John Paul’s appointments to the College of Cardinals have strengthened the Ratzinger and the Sodano factions. On Feb. 21, however, the pope reversed form, elevating several new moderates. They include Germans Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper, Louis-Marie Billé of Lyons, France, and José da Cruz Policarpo of Lisbon, Portugal.

The newly appointed moderates join like-minded cardinals such as Godfried Daneels of Belgium and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

Certainly there are new cardinals who bolster the other factions. Juan Cipriani of Lima, Peru, for example, is a powerful addition to the far-right wing of the Sodano block. Most of the other 26 new Latin American cardinals help the faction concerned with the social and political presence of the church.

But the biggest news out of this consistory is that the moderates are back up to fighting weight.

Why did the pope do it? To some extent, he was constrained by circumstance. German bishops, for example, made a strong push for Lehmann, hinting that unhappy German Catholics might threaten the annual pilgrimage of “St. Marc” -- that is, the millions of deutschemarks that make their way to the Vatican every year in receipts from a state-administered church tax.

Further, the new prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Giovanni Battista Re, is close to the Martini camp, which could help explain some appointments. Some Vatican-watchers think Re would be the candidate to carry out the curial reform that Giovanni Benelli, Paul VI’s right-hand man, would have pursued if he rather than Karol Wojtyla had been elected in October 1978.

Whatever the case, Catholics hoping for a more decentralized church have reason to feel new optimism. John Paul did not dictate the outcome of the next papal election with his Feb. 21 appointments, but he helped ensure it will be a fair three-way contest.

All of which means the Holy Spirit has more options when the time comes.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001