Many things changed on March 13, 2013, the day Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected as Pope Francis. Perhaps nothing mutated as dramatically as the career of Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, a leading progressive voice in Catholicism.
Not so long ago, Rodríguez’s fortunes seemed on life support after a handful of public embarrassments and a humiliating defeat in a Vatican power struggle. Today he comes off as virtually a “vice-pope,” the coordinator of Francis’ all-important council of cardinal advisors and his most visible and outspoken interpreter.
Rodríguez was at it again on Tuesday, using a Vatican news conference to rip American criticism of the pope’s forthcoming manifesto on the environment.
Once upon a time, it seemed plausible that Rodríguez himself might hold the church’s top job. In the 1990s it was the Honduran cardinal, and not Bergoglio of Argentina, who seemed the charismatic face of a resurgent Latin American faith.
Elected president of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) from 1995 to 1999, Rodríguez became a ferocious champion of Catholic social teaching and an acerbic critic of a “neo-liberal” global economic system. He also befriended Bergoglio, who complemented Rodríguez’s public leadership as a key behind-the-scenes force.
Rodríguez was inducted into the College of Cardinals in 2001, and he was obviously the superstar of that crop. Excited Hondurans flooded Rome, shrieking with delight at every turn, prompting comparisons to a soccer star or a celebrity of Honduran punta, the country’s most popular musical tradition.
Such acclaim, however, breeds blowback, and it wasn’t long in coming.
When Pope John Paul II traveled to Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras in 2001, he brought his freshly minted Honduran cardinal in tow. Some in the papal party felt Rodríguez deliberately overshadowed the Polish pontiff, giving his own impromptu press conferences in multiple languages along the way.
Church veterans began to grumble that it seemed as if the upstart was “running for pope.”
Conservatives also began poking holes in Rodríguez’s theological pedigree, noting that he studied moral theology under a German named Bernard Häring, whose liberal views on sexual morality were not in favor during the John Paul and subsequent Benedict years.
Having become a celebrity overnight, Rodríguez at times seemed out of his depth. In 2002 he set off a tempest in the United States by comparing criticism of the Catholic Church over the sex abuse scandals to persecutions under Nero, Diocletian, Hitler and Stalin.
He went as far as to suggest that the American media’s obsession with the scandals was a way to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of a Jewish lobby. Those comments brought angry protests from both sex abuse victims and the Anti-Defamation League.
In the years to come, there was whispering that Rodríguez’s rhetoric wasn’t matched by a command of policy details, including affairs in his own country.
When leftist Manuel Zelaya came to power in 2006, Rodríguez seemed to support the new leader but later became critical, claiming that Zelaya was being radicalized by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Following a military coup in June 2009 he first remained silent, then read a statement on national television seeming to bless the action. Eventually he backpedaled, insisting that supporting the coup was a way to avoid bloodshed.
All that was a prelude to a Vatican debacle.
In 2007, Rodríguez was elected president of Caritas, a Rome-based federation of 164 Catholic charitable organizations. In early 2011, Lesley-Anne Knight, a Zimbabwe-born lay woman who served as the organization’s secretary general, was denied permission by the Vatican to stand for a second term.
There were rumblings the move was payback for what was seen as unacceptable coziness between Caritas and secular NGOs, some of which provide birth control and support abortion rights. A year later the Vatican decreed a set of new statutes for Caritas, imposing tighter controls by bishops and requiring senior officials to swear loyalty oaths.
As the pressure intensified, Caritas officials and members looked to Rodríguez to mount a defense. He tried first to save Knight and then to stave off the new rules, and in both cases he failed. In the aftermath, the take-away was that Rodríguez had almost no remaining influence.
In truth, he became the kind of figure whose entrance into Roman salons triggered an embarrassed silence. As one Vatican wag phrased it at the time, “You can put a fork in his career, because it’s done.”
Today, nobody is making such cracks anymore.
With the new pope at his back, the 72-year-old Rodríguez is arguably the second most powerful man in Catholicism. He’s the leading symbol of an entire cohort of center-left churchmen who seemed marginalized not so long ago, but who today are clearly back in the game.
One flabbergasted Vatican official captured the reaction shortly after the new pope’s election, when Francis appointed the Honduran prelate as coordinator of the council of cardinals.
“Dear God,” the official said, “Oscar is back!”
As long as Francis is in charge, it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.