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ROME – Given the death late Friday of Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was 94, what’s often described as the Vatican’s “old guard” has taken a significant blow. Sodano had been the Secretary of State to two popes and the former Dean of the College of Cardinals, and he remained massively influential in shaping the Vatican’s internal culture.
With Sodano’s passing, the new de facto captain of the old guard arguably becomes 88-year-old Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Sodano’s successor as Dean of the College of Cardinals and, like Sodano, a product of the Secretariat of State, having served as an aide to the legendary Cardinal Giovanni Benelli when Benelli was the sostituto, or chief of staff, to Pope Paul VI.
What do we mean by the “old guard”?
The phrase refers to an informal network of longtime personnel, both clerical and lay, and primarily (though not exclusively) associated with the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s most powerful department. This network sees itself as defending the traditional pillars of the Vatican’s culture, above all autonomy and sovereignty, which often translates into an instinctive wariness about outsiders – the old guard, for example, generally prefers to do business with someone who’s della famiglia, “a member of the family,” no matter how impeccable the credentials and expertise of someone else without those connections may be.
Though Sodano was an important point of reference, it would be a serious mistake to think that his death means the old guard is down for the count. Another of its defining features is its almost preternatural ability to ride out waves of attempted reforms, including personnel changes.
They are masters of what Italians would call una riforma gattopardesca, a novel by famed Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the key line of which was: “Everything must change, so that everything can remain the same.”
For critics, Sodano was almost the living embodiment of why the old guard’s grip on power ought to be broken.
He had a somewhat imperious style of governing, and he was often accused of building empires and pursuing an agenda parallel to, occasionally even at odds with, the priorities of the popes he served. It was sometimes said of Sodano that his misfortune was being born out of time, in that he would have made an ideal Secretary of State during the Renaissance, when cardinals of such rank truly were princes.
When Sodano was the papal ambassador in Chile during the Pinochet era, from 1978 to 1988, he acquired a reputation as a staunch ally of the military regime. In effect, Sodano was seen as a rival center of power to Santiago’s Cardinal Raul Silva Enríquez, a Pope John XXIII appointee who had cautiously supported Socialist President Salvador Allende, killed in a coup in 1973, and was critical of Pinochet.
The greatest criticism Sodano faced, however, came with the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Sodano was known as the best friend in the Vatican of the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was later found by an investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to have been guilty of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct. Sodano admired Maciel for his success in generating new vocations and for his strong fealty to the pope and tried to assist him whenever rumors of misconduct surfaced.
In 2005, Sodano used a private meeting with the then-US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to request that the White House compel a judge in Kentucky to toss out a sex abuse lawsuit naming the Vatican as a defendant. Rice declined the request, explaining that under the American system the executive branch of government has no control over the judiciary, though the suit was later withdrawn by the lawyer who filed it for other reasons.
In April 2010, Sodano again generated controversy when he used a greeting to the pope during the Vatican’s Easter Sunday liturgy to label criticism of Pope Benedict XVI on clerical abuse issues as the “petty gossip of the moment.” As I wrote at the time, Sodano thereby managed to alienate simultaneously two constituencies that typically occupy different planets: Survivors of clerical abuse, and liturgical traditionalists unhappy with the novelty of the Easter Mass being disrupted for a cardinal’s speech.
Also in 2010, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn accused Sodano of having blocked an investigation of abuse charges in 1995 against the former Archbishop of Vienna, Hans Hermann Groër. The spectacle of one cardinal publicly accusing another of a cover-up led to an extraordinary summit in Rome, in which Schönborn was compelled to acknowledge that the lone judge of a cardinal was the pope.
(That was before a reform by Pope Francis, which allows a cardinal to be indicted and prosecuted for criminal activity by a Vatican tribunal.)
Sodano has also faced criticism of providing incomplete information to Popes John Paul II and Benedict about sexual abuse and misconduct charges against former Cardinal, and former priest, Theodore McCarrick in the US.
To be sure, Sodano also has his defenders.
Fans say he loyally served John Paul II, despite strong disagreements with the Polish pontiff over the Vatican’s traditional policy of Ostpolitik, or outreach and dialogue with the Soviet world; that he helped pave the way for rapprochement with China, including the controversial deal struck under Pope Francis regarding the appointment of bishops; and that, however ham-handedly, he defended Benedict XVI when the pontiff was under attack, thereby earning credit for loyalty at a time when others seemed to be jumping ship.
Nonetheless, it’s striking that even “Vatican News,” the official Vatican outlet, and Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, did not publish tributes, restricting themselves largely to a brief précis of his career. Pope Francis, in a telegram, said only, “I recall his diligent work alongside so many of my predecessors, who entrusted him with important responsibilities in the Vatican diplomacy, up to the delicate office of Secretary of State.”
Perhaps, in the end, Sodano’s passing actually will prove a boon to the old guard, in that it removes a lightning rod. But whatever else one may want to say about Cardinal Angelo Sodano, one of the titans of the Catholic Church over more than 50 years, the line from Shakespeare seems apt: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”