National Catholic Reporter ®

January 11, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 20

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Scouting report: three soon-to-be-cardinals range
from conservative to more conservative to unknown

Assuming all three men become cardinals, the right wing of the Salt of the Earth party gets a new captain in Scola; the border patrol gets a pugnacious point of reference, its own Jesse Helms, in Pell; and the reformers have to wait to see how Ricard defines himself. 

When John Paul II next adds members to the College of Cardinals, we now know three of the names sure to be on that list. On Jan. 5, the pope named Angelo Scola, rector of the Lateran University in Rome, to be the new patriarch of Venice. He joins George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux, France, as recent appointees to sees that all but guarantee a red hat.

     Assuming John Paul does not die before he has the chance to make these men cardinals, all three could be important figures in the next papal election, and hence I decided this week to make some introductions.

     Scola’s appointment is automatically significant because Venice produced three 20th century popes: Giuseppe Sarto, who took the name Pius X in 1903; Angelo Roncalli, who became John XXIII in 1958; and Albino Luciani, who served 33 days in 1978 as John Paul I. 

     For Italians, Scola’s ascension marks a victory for the lay movement Communion and Liberation over Catholic Action, its long-time rival. Catholic Action represents the Paul VI faction of the Italian church, centrists who abandoned church and state battles such as those over legalization of divorce and birth control. The ciellini, as members of Communione e Liberazione are known, are more likely to insist that civil law should reflect church teaching. In Italian politics, they are aligned with the right; Rocco Buttiglione, a long time ciellino, is a minister in the Berlusconi government. Scola is a longtime advisor and supporter.

     Over the years, tensions generated by Communione e Liberazione ran deep. This is reflected in the fact that nowhere in Scola’s lengthy official biography can one find the diocese for which he was ordained a priest. In fact, he was ordained alone in 1970 in Teramo, in Northern Italy, after leaving a seminary in Milan. Rumors have long suggested that Scola was asked to leave as part of an anti-ciellini purge, though an Italian bishop who was rector of the seminary at the time told me Jan. 9 that this is not true. But the matter is sensitive enough, according to a source in Communione e Liberazione, that Scola’s original diocese was “censured” from his résumé as an unwelcome reminder of the group’s troubled past.

     For the rest of the world, of likely greater interest is Scola’s engagement on issues of sexuality and the family. 

     Scola, 60, did his theological work at the prestigious University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and is a disciple of the Vatican II penitenti – men who were part of the reform-minded majority at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but who later developed reservations about the direction of the post-conciliar church. Scola was influenced in this regard by Henri de Lubac and Hans urs von Balthasar. He has published book-length interviews with both men. 

     Scola was a co-founder of the Italian edition of Communio, the international theological journal founded as a conservative counter-point to Concilium, the journal of the council’s progressive wing. From 1986 to 1991, Scola was a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

     His field is theological anthropology, and in 1982 he was appointed to the faculty at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, created to defend the pope’s hard line on issues such as divorce, artificial reproduction, cloning, homosexuality, and abortion. Key institute figures such as Scola and Archbishop Carlo Caffarra, in tandem with the Pontifical Council on the Family, have been the architects of John Paul’s war against the “culture of death.” 

     I first met Scola in 1998, in Denver, where he took part in a conference on new technologies sponsored by Archbishop Charles Chaput. I’ve also seen him in action at the Lateran University, where he has been rector since 1995.

     Scola’s views on life issues are unyielding, but he is no fanatic. I’ve spoken with theologians in Rome who told me they were nervous when he took over the Lateran, but who have found him to be open, flexible, and capable of transcending ideology to form his own judgments. Personally, I have always found him gracious, with a good sense of humor. I suspect he will be popular in Venice (though there is a rumor making the rounds that some clergy in Venice were opposed to the appointment).

     One of Scola’s final projects at the Lateran was the opening of a branch campus of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999, where the big local booster was Archbishop George Pell. The fiesty Pell, 60, has since moved from Melbourne to Sydney, becoming the primate of the Australian church, and hence also in line to enter the College of Cardinals.

     Pell is not the kind of man who goes unnoticed. When he took over in Melbourne in 1996, he imposed a strict regime for future priests at the local seminary, prompting the departure of its rector and four senior teaching staff. He also refused to administer communion to gay Catholics, criticized a government program to provide “safe rooms” for heroin addicts, and suggested that single women should not be allowed access to in-vitro fertilization clinics. After moving to Sydney, he kicked up more dust by proposing a tax on divorce.

     Pell is known as a doctrinal “enforcer.” One target was former Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, who announced his resignation from the priesthood in mid-March 2001. Collins was the target of a Vatican investigation, which he attributes in part to Pell’s influence, for a book in which he questioned papal infallibility. (The final straw in Collins’ case was an interview he did with me in NCR, which was cited in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s last letter threatening disciplinary action).

     I say all this to locate Pell in terms of current ecclesiastical debates, not to paint him as a sort of Torquemada revivus. In fact, Pell is a charming man, one of the most accessible prelates around. Journalists love him because he is open, honest, and never one to sugarcoat answers. Like Nathaniel in John’s gospel, there is no guile in Pell. (He likes the press; I recently missed a talk he gave at a Vatican conference on the family, and Pell reached into his bag and handed me the original of his speech, notes and all).

     In last week’s column I made a passing reference to Pell, and in response papal biographer George Weigel was kind enough to forward a piece he had written on the Australian prelate. A sample: 

     "When I first met George Pell in 1966, I was struck by the freshness of his personality and by his lack of clericalism. Those same qualities are manifestly alive in him today. He combines the rugged good humor of a former footballer with the intellectual edge of an Oxford-trained historian and the piety of a convinced Christian disciple. He is at home with lay people and children in a way few senior Catholic prelates can match. He attracts deep loyalties, not because he demands obeisance, but because he is a magnet for friendships that he works hard to keep green. 

     "That George Pell is a sign of contradiction these days is obvious. But why? My old friend has become a lightning rod, it seems to me, not because he is the authoritarian heavy portrayed by some, but because he has ideas – ideas that challenge the dominant consensus on the international Catholic left and among Australia’s thoroughly secularist intellectual and cultural tastemakers."

     I suspect Weigel has it about right. Pell strikes me as a decent man who is controversial because he refuses to give an inch on some very strong ideas, and now has the administrative power to back them up. Whether those ideas are right or wrong, and how one applies them, is of course a matter of debate.

     As far as Jean-Pierre Ricard goes, the new man in Bordeaux, I’ve not met him, but French Catholics I know give him generally good marks. He was elected president of the French bishops conference in November, and had served as vice-president since 1999. Le Monde describes him as “jovial and open.”

     Ricard, 57, comes from the southern diocese of Marseilles (French speakers says he still carries a trace of a Provençal accent), and is reputed to have a quick analytical mind and a reconciler’s spirit. In his last assignment, as bishop of Montpellier, people say he worked well with laity, especially women.

     He is notoriously slow to anger, capable of absorbing criticism without taking it personally. His priests in Montpellier nicknamed him edredon – meaning a big fluffy blanket. The idea is that he covers you in warmth, no matter what you say or do.

     I confess I paid little attention to Ricard’s intervention at last October’s synod of bishops. Looking back now, however, I find that I am impressed. “We may compare the bishop to a loom weaving the ecclesial material,” he said, arguing that a bishop should be the agent of shared decision making, or synodality, in the local church, bringing together all its gifts and excluding none. 

     Ricard has been willing to tackle difficult social and political questions. In December, he responded to a French politician’s assertion that anti-Semitism in France was a “phantasm.” Ricard said, “It is not a phantasm. It is reality. When one sees a certain number of inscriptions on the walls of synagogues, I say it is intolerable.” He also paid a highly publicized visit last March to 18 Kurdish refugees staging a hunger strike to protest a decision of French courts to return them to Turkey, where they claimed they would face persecution. Ricard asked for a “humane and just” resolution.

     Part of his sensitivity comes from spending 1964-65 in Mali as part of his national service commitment. There he taught French, Latin and Greek, and befriended a young pupil named Jean Zerbo, who has since become the archbishop of Mali. The two have stayed in touch, and the relationship is said to have lent a personal dimension to Third World issues for Ricard. On the other hand, he has criticized Catholic Action in France for being too wrapped up in matters of social justice and forgetting the gospel.

     Perhaps a key to understanding Ricard is the fact that he served as vicar general to Cardinal Robert Coffy of Marseille from 1988 to 1993. Coffy was the classic French prelate: an open, intellectual pastor deeply engaged with the modern world. (He published works on Marx, Kierkegaard and Teilhard). Though no doctrinal radical, Coffy was a pragmatist. For example, shortly before he died in 1995 he suggested condoms could be justified to halt the spread of AIDS.

     If Ricard manages to carry forward Coffy’s spirit, the church should be well served.

     In my new book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (this spring from Doubleday), I identify three political parties in the College of Cardinals. They are the “border patrol,” theological conservatives devoted to maintaining boundaries between Catholicism and the world; the “salt of the earth” faction, interested in changing the world in light of church teaching; and the “reform party,” pursuing renewal of the church in light of the Second Vatican Council. 

     So, the scorecard after these three appointments?

     Assuming all three men become cardinals, the right wing of the Salt of the Earth party gets a new captain in Scola; the border patrol gets a pugnacious point of reference, its own Jesse Helms, in Pell; and the reformers have to wait to see how Ricard defines himself. 

* * *

     The best church-related joke I’ve heard recently was recounted by Jesuit Fr. Ferruccio Romanin, rector of Rome’s Church of St. Ignatius. He told it during a homily at the 11:00 am Sunday Mass in English at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita (which visitors to Rome definitely should not miss). The joke requires a bit of understanding of post-war Italian politics, but I suspect readers of this column will figure it out.

     A son comes home and says to his father, “Dad, I’m finally getting married.” 

     The father, beaming, says, “That’s wonderful, it’s the news I’ve been waiting for all these years. Who is it?”

     The son says, “Guido, the guy down the street.”

     The father, shocked, screams: “But you can’t marry him. He’s a Communist!”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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