A conspiracy to elect Pope Francis? Don't believe it.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 28, 2015

Did a powerful group of cardinals conspire to unseat Pope Benedict XVI and elect Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio—Pope Francis—in his place? That sensational claim has been circulating in conservative Catholic internet sites. But the available facts don’t support the sensational headlines.

Edward Pentin, a respected Vatican journalist, broke the story to the English-speaking world with his report for the National Catholic Register. He reported—accurately—that a new biography of Belgium’s retired Cardinal Godfried Danneels has disclosed that the existence of a group of prelates who were committed to “progressive” causes, and unhappy with the influence exerted in the Vatican by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The members of the St. Gallen group reportedly included the late Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan of Milan, the veteran Vatican insider Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and the German Cardinals Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper, along with Cardinal Danneels. At the launch of the book, Cardinal Danneels referred to this group—known as the St. Gallen group, after the location where they had met—as a “mafia club.”

Now it may not be edifying to learn that cardinals were plotting to influence Vatican policy, and knowledgeable readers, glancing down that list of names, might well worry about their influence. But it does not rise to the level of conspiracy if a group of prelates meet to discuss Church affairs.

However, the authors of the biography went further, telling a French newspaper that the St. Gallen group had been active in the conclave of 2005, resisting Cardinal Ratzinger and promoting Cardinal Bergoglio. If it were true—if the cardinals had actively lobbied during the conclave—their behavior would have been a scandal, a clear violation of canon law, an offense for which St. John Paul II prescribed the penalty of excommunication.

As soon as that story drew public attention, things became more complicated. The authors of the Danneels biography said that they had been misunderstood. The St. Gallen group had not been acting as a lobbying bloc at the 2005 conclave, they now said, and shortly after the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the group stopped meeting.

But should we take this retraction/correction at face value? The authors were working closely with Cardinal Danneels (it was an authorized biography, and he was cooperating actively in the publicity campaign to launch the book), so it seems unlikely that they were entirely mistaken about the nature of the St. Gallen gatherings. And when the cardinal himself referred to a “mafia club,” although the phrase might have been used light-heartedly, it did prompt thoughts of a sinister, secret cabal. So it would not be unreasonable to suspect—as many conservative analysts did suspect—that the book’s authors had been all too honest, and when they realized the scandal they might have created, they were prepared to obfuscate in order to undo the damage.

On the other hand, there are compelling reasons to dismiss the claims of conspiracy:

  • Even if the authors of the Danneels biography were quoted accurately, they had an obvious incentive to exaggerate the power of the St. Gallen group, to create publicity for their book. A story about a secret cabal is more likely to sell briskly than the life story of a retired cardinal.
  • If the St. Gallen group did make an effort to control the conclave of 2005, they failed miserably. The conclave almost immediately turned to Cardinal Ratzinger: the man whose influence the group was allegedly fighting to curtail.
  • Cardinal Martini was widely seen as the leader of the liberal group that might have sought for an alternative to Cardinal Ratzinger. But Vatican insiders know that Cardinal Martini was not at all favorably disposed toward his fellow Jesuit, Cardinal Bergoglio, and would never have supported his election.
  • Since the St. Gallen group stopped meeting in 2006, it was not likely to be an important factor in the conclave of 2013, which elected Pope Francis. By that time Cardinal Martini was dead, and other members—Cardinals Silvestrini and Murphy-O’Connor—were too old to participate in the conclave.
  • In the days leading up to the 2013 conclave, virtually no one expected the election of Cardinal Bergoglio. If a group of cardinals had been working for years to generate enthusiasm about his candidacy, they must have been singularly inept .

A biography of Cardinal Danneels is, regrettably, likely to generate thoughts of scandal. The Belgian cardinal’s failure to report sexual abuse, and the police raid on his residence; his support for government recognition of same-sex unions; his advice to King Baudouin to sign a law allowing for legal abortion. In light of this checkered past, it is astonishing that Pope Francis chose to appoint Cardinal Danneels to participate in the October session of the Synod of Bishops. But to claim that Cardinal Danneels is a successful conspirator is to leap well beyond the evidence.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: DanS - Sep. 29, 2015 3:32 PM ET USA

    Why does he need to be a "successful" conspirator to deserve opprobrium? Not only is Danneels is a living, breathing scandal to Holy Mother Church, and an affront to all that is good and holy, he's a coward. One can (strongly) oppose the efforts by Kaspar and company to change the immutable, and still admit that the man has the courage to engage publicly on the issue. Danneels has shown himself to be a back-room operator, all pomp and circumstance while hiding abusers.