ROME — A high-profile Italian cardinal once regarded as a leading candidate to be pope, and who was seen as a leader of moderate-to-progressive forces in the Church during the late St. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, died on Saturday August 5 after a long sickness at the age of 83.
Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi was Archbishop of Milan from 2002 to 2011, succeeding the late progressive Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Throughout his tenure, Tettamanzi was perceived as spiritually and ideologically in line with Martini’s legacy.
“Upon learning of the death of the dear Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, I wish to express my condolences to his family and to this diocesan community, which counts him among its most illustrious sons and among its most lovable and beloved pastors,” Pope Francis wrote in a telegram this morning.
Tettamanzi – who, back in 2005, Crux editor John Allen described as having a “roly-poly, affable bearing reminiscent of John XXIII,” – contributed to several Vatican documents on moral theology, most especially St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
He didn’t easily fit into left-right categories. On one hand, Tettamanzi was a leading voice in the anti-globalization protests for the G-8 Summit in Genoa in July 2001, which won him the admiration of many progressives.
On the other, the cardinal warmed up to traditionalists by writing letters in support of indulgences and church teaching on the Devil. He also had close relations with the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, whose founder he likened to Ss. Benedict and Francis of Assisi in terms of launching new movements within the church in a 1998 article.
Throughout his near-decade in the Milan Archdiocese, the late cardinal was considered among the papabile, meaning likely to be elected pope at the Conclave of cardinals. Yet Tettamanzi was considered too left-leaning for the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation (Cl), a lay movement which tends to be the more conservative Catholic pole in Milan.
In a 2011 letter to the then Pope Benedict XVI, the president of Cl, Spanish Father Julián Carrón, pointed to a “profound crisis of faith of the People of God, in particular of the Ambrosian tradition.”
That letter was supposed to be confidential, but became public as part of the original “Vatileaks” scandal under Pope Benedict XVI.
Carrón added that under Martini and Tettamanzi the diocese of Milan maintained “a certain unilateralism of interventions on social justice,” and “a ‘systematic’ bias in favor of the political center-left rather than more conservative parties and politicians.”
Tettamanzi had previously criticized the mayor of Milan in December of 2009 for carrying out large-scale evictions of Rom people in the city. The populist right-wing party Nothern League retaliated with a full-scale media attack, which, according to historian Alberto Melloni, was an effort to influence his succession.
In his letter, Carrón proposed to the pope that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, who came out of Cl, should succeed Tettamanzi as Archbishop of Milan. Scola was named in June 2011, and only recently retired after Pope Francis nominated Bishop Mario Delpini as the new head of the Milan diocese.
The late cardinal was born in Northern Italian town of Renate, Lombardy on March 14, 1934. He entered the seminary at the age of 11 and was ordained priest in 1957 by the then-Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, future Pope Paul VI.
His interest in moral theology blossomed during his time as professor at the Venegono Seminary in the 1960’s, where he became an expert in themes such as sexuality, bioethics and marriage, which would later catch the attention of Pope John Paul II who called him to the Vatican to cooperate on several writing projects.
Concerning marriage, Tettamanzi had expressed favorable views toward Communion for the divorced and remarried in a 2014 interview with Italian daily il Corriere della Sera, provided conditions be placed to ensure “the necessary context of the proclamation and witness of the Gospel.”
This view is close to Pope Francis’s cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and remarried in his 2016 papal document Amoris Laetitia, which stirred debate between left and right-wing Catholics.
Tettamanzi was the Archbishop of three dioceses: Ancona-Osimo in 1989, Genoa in 1995, and finally Milan in 2002. For five years, between 1995 and 2000, Tettamanzi acted as vice-president of the Italian Episcopal Conference.
Toward the end of his tenure as Archbishop of Milan, the cardinal already presented signs of illness and underwent several medical procedures. His last public appearance was April 20, 2016 where he insisted on going to the mass in the Duomo of Milan presided by Pope Francis, even though he though he was weak and restricted to a wheelchair. The pope greeted him warmly, and even spoke to him in private for a while in the sacristy.
Tettamanzi and his predecessor Martini, in a way, incarnated the ‘Pope Francis style’ long before Pope Francis. The late cardinal expressed concern for the marginalized on many occasions, including the creation of a “Work-Family Fund” during the 2008 economic crisis in order to help the growing number of unemployed and to which he donated 1 million euros.
He also reached out to the peripheries and heeded Pope Francis’ call to welcome migrants and refugees in the dioceses. Just as the pope had done in the Greek island of Lesbos in 2013, when he brought 20 Syrian refugees back to the Vatican with him, Tettamanzi welcomed 20 Nigerians in the beautiful Holy Heart Villa in Lombardy where he lived with other priests.
It is precisely in this villa, where Tettamanzi retired in June of 2011, and located only a few miles away from the home of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, that the former cardinal continued working on his writings far away from criticism and attacks from politicians and media outlets, who sometimes labeled him a “son of catto-communism.”
Still, in his life Tettamanzi was able to live up to the motto from one of his books, ‘This is our faith!’: “Every true hero knows how to bear the weight of the blows he suffers.”