ROME – You know it’s a strange time when the pope gives an interview to a major news outlet, and arguably it’s not even the most interesting ecclesiastical Q&A of the month.
Pope Francis spoke Friday to the Italian agency Adnkronos. Yet earlier this month, legendary Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the once all-powerful Vicar of Rome and president of the Italian bishops’ conference under St. John Paul II, spoke to the Italian paper Corriere della Sera and offered possibly even tastier food for thought.
Now a lion in winter as he nears his 90th birthday in February, Ruini is seen as one of the leaders of the College of Cardinals’ conservative wing. In Catholic circles, the main headline from the interview thus was a comment from Ruini about whether there’s an “international conservative front” against Pope Francis.
“In some ways, it exists,” he said, “but it has various accentuations and facets. Only a few could truly be considered ‘against’ Pope Francis; for example, not all of those who’ve formulated certain criticisms with a constructive intent.”
In Italy, the zinger was Ruini’s flattery of Giorgia Meloni, who, Ruini said, is “deservedly on the crest of the wave.” Meloni is the founder and leader of the Fratelli d’Italia party, and she’s widely seen as the main challenger to populist Matteo Salvini as the leader of the center-right.
However, Ruini also had some interesting things to say about cardinals and popes which merit unpacking. Here’s the relevant part of the interview.
Not just Venice, Turin and Genoa, but even Milan, today don’t have a cardinal. Is this a sign of decline [for the church in Italy]?
“A hundred years ago, Italians were the absolute majority among cardinals. Internationalization began with Pope Pius XII, more in keeping with the catholicity and universality of the Church, which, with Pope Francis, is developing further. Naturally, there has to be a limit to this process too. It wouldn’t be good if Italy were under-represented, also because Rome, the seat of the Successor of Peter, is the capital of Italy.”
Some foreign cardinals have said the weight of the Italians has to be reduced: ‘Better to come from Tonga than Milan.’ Has it become a problem to be Italian?
“I don’t think the Italian bishops perceive such a problem. Anyway, nationality, whether Italian or non-Italian, shouldn’t be either a handicap or a title of merit. That’s demanded by the very nature of the Church.”
We haven’t had an Italian pope for a half-century. Is being Italian by now a handicap for becoming pope?
“I don’t think so. I’d say instead that it’s no longer an advantage, or at least a prerequisite, but it’s good that it’s no longer so. The one elected pope should be the person regarded as most worthy and suitable, independently of nationality.”
Three take-aways occur.
First, for anyone who knows the Vatican, the idea that Italians being under-represented would seem almost silly. Despite decades of alleged internationalization, the Vatican remains an unalterably Italian institution, and under Pope Francis, it’s arguably more so than ever.
Ruini wasn’t talking about the Vatican but the College of Cardinals, but even so, the Italian imprint in that arena too remains sui generis. As of Nov. 28, when Francis will create nine new cardinals under 80, Italy will have 23 Princes of the Church eligible to vote for the next pope; the only other country in the double digits will be the United States with 10. Italy, with about 60 million Catholics, has 23 cardinals, while Brazil, with 120 million, has 4. Put differently, Italy gets a cardinal for every 2.6 million Catholics, while Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, gets one for every 30 million.
Let’s face it: The Italians in the College of Cardinals still are on their home field; everyone else is playing a road game.
Second, Ruini’s point seemed to be not just about numbers, but the intrinsic link between Rome as the capital of Italy and as the seat of the papacy. The implied argument is this: If Catholics believe in salvation history, then it’s not just an accident the center of government for the Catholic Church is in Italy. Italy is a culture uniquely shaped by Catholicism, warts and all, and to strip the Vatican or the College of Cardinals of its primarily Italian ethos would be to deny tradition and to risk identity.
That argument may or may not hold water, but it would be very interesting to play out.
Third, Ruini asserts that being Italian is no longer an advantage in becoming pope, but I wonder.
Granted, most cardinals probably begin with policy, not nationality. That is, cardinals who support the direction set by Pope Francis will want someone to continue it; those opposed will want someone to set a new course.
However, suppose one of those in favor of continuity is choosing between Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. You don’t think he might given Parolin the nod on the grounds that, as an Italian, he’ll know how to get things done?
Conversely, suppose one of those seeking change is pondering Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, retired from Genoa, or Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Despite the inherent attraction of a “black pope,” one wonders if Bagnasco might not have the edge as an Italian who knows where the bodies are buried.
In other words, we are in an era in which all countries in the papal sweepstakes may be equal, but that doesn’t mean Italy still isn’t a little more equal than others.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.