World -- Analysis
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  April 8, 2005

The 'Gang of Four' behind the papal throne


Pope John Paul II spent the first half of March in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital recovering from a tracheotomy, and has passed the second part of the month in virtual isolation in the Vatican to protect him from reinfection. He has appeared in public only five times, totaling little more than 15 minutes, in addition to a two-hour television broadcast on Good Friday when the pope was shown from behind following the traditional Via Crucis ceremony.

By all accounts, the nearly 85-year-old pope has been seriously weakened and fatigued over the course of the month, triggering wide speculation about the actual state of his health.

Despite the popular impression that the business of the papacy comes grinding to a halt when the pope is sick, the normal pace of activity has suffered barely a hiccup. According to official Vatican bulletins, during March John Paul II has:

  • Appointed 28 bishops;
  • Issued 10 messages for various groups and occasions, totaling 5,891 words;
  • Issued two telegrams;
  • Participated in one ad limina visit, with the bishops of Tanzania;
  • Prepared the texts of four Sunday Angelus messages;
  • Written his annual Holy Thursday letter to priests, of 2,095 words;
  • Appointed five officers for an upcoming Synod of Bishops;
  • Appointed four new officers to the government of the Vatican city-state;
  • Appointed a new member of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs;
  • Appointed six members of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Even with a pope in the flush of health, it would strain credibility to believe that he was personally responsible for all this activity. Given John Paul’s current fatigue and weakness, however, it is all the more impossible to maintain that the pope himself is personally engaged in the details of all these appointments and texts.

From the testimony of everyone who has seen him during this period, it’s clear that Pope John Paul II retains full lucidity and is capable of saying “yes” or “no” to proposals placed before him, and can still add some characteristic personal touches. At the same time, however, everyone concedes that, increasingly, the bulk of the work is being performed by others.

So, the $64,000 question: Who are these others? Who is running the show?

By general agreement, while all papal acts are equal, some are more equal than others. The church could survive for a year, for example, without another encyclical, or another beatification, or another papal trip. It would be difficult, however, to imagine a year without the appointment of a bishop, which would in effect leave hundreds of dioceses leaderless. It would also be difficult to go a year without some direction from the pope on matters of topical interest where there is a danger of rifts or confusion about where the church stands.

Hence those officials responsible for assisting the pope with the selection of bishops, and with preparing his statements on matters of current concern stand to gain the most in authority from an extended papal convalescence.

Under the current dispensation, this means that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state (along with his key subordinate, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri), loom as the key power brokers within John Paul II’s Vatican team. Rounding out the picture is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which holds the responsibility for resolving doctrinal disputes.

In the period of John Paul’s convalescence at the Gemelli Hospital, Sodano, Re and Ratzinger, along with Sandri, were the only Vatican officials to have regular access to the pope beyond his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. That continues now that John Paul is back at the Vatican, where doctors continue to fear the possibility of reinfection and hence are tightly restricting access to the pope.

As in any system where ultimate authority is vested in the top man, access means power. These days, other heads of Vatican offices increasingly find themselves leaving materials for the pope with Dziwisz, and getting them back from the Secretariat of State, with papal decisions indicated. Who advised the pope in reaching those decisions is not spelled out, but usually it’s easy enough to deduce: Dziwisz, Sodano, Re or Ratzinger, or some combination of the four.

This “Gang of Four,” it should be said, is not in total unison. As is historically almost always the case, there is tension between the pope’s private secretary and the secretary of state as to who can speak for the pope. In addition, Dziwisz is seen as tenaciously loyal to the personal vision of John Paul, while Sodano tends to reflect more the institutional ethos of the Roman curia. Further, Sodano and Re are notoriously uncomfortable with each other.

Nevertheless, there is little indication that this “Gang of Four” is involved in a power struggle, or is acting contrary to John Paul’s vision. For the most part, they seem to be loyally trying to ensure that even while the pope himself is disengaged from day-to-day business, the church still runs according to his general design.

The question is what happens if time passes with the pope in his present condition, or even more incapacitated. Inevitably, new questions will arise to which the pope has not already given clear answers, and the “slippage” between carrying out the pope’s preexisting design and inventing new responses in his name will increase.

At what point the Catholic world will begin raising hard questions about the legitimacy of those responses is not clear. If the pope’s recovery continues to be slow and unsteady, this is a question the “Gang of Four” will almost certainly have to confront.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: