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Who leaked the cardinals' letter? Cui bono?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 14, 2015

Who leaked the letter from a group of cardinals to Pope Francis, voicing concerns about the Synod? Like nearly everyone writing about Vatican affairs—with the notable exception of Sandro Magister, who published the letter—I wish I knew.

Ordinarily, in searching for a source of a leaked document, the first order of business is to consider whose interests are served by the publicity. If you can figure out who might want the document made public, you’re probably not far from knowing who leaked it.

In this case, however, it is not at all clear who benefits from the publication of a confidential letter to the Pope. At first glance it might seem that the authors of the letter have the most to gain. If they were not satisfied with the response they received from the Holy Father, they might want to add some public pressure for their cause.

That hypothesis is buttressed by two facts. First, the leak came through Magister, who has frequently been critical of Pope Francis, and has raised questions in his own columns very similar to those raised by the cardinals who signed the letter. Second, the letter became public only after Pope Francis responded to the cardinals’ concerns—a week or more after it had been written.

However, the publication of a confidential letter may have damaged the cause of the cardinals who wrote it. The leak was perceived as an underhanded move, an attempt to manipulate public opinion: in short an act of disloyalty. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, reportedly one of the cardinals who signed the letter (which he has refused to confirm or deny), was steaming over the leak, saying that it created the appearance that Pope Francis is surrounded by “wolves” who undermine his authority.

Would it be too far-fetched, then, to suggest that the letter could have been leaked by someone who wanted to make trouble for the cardinals who signed it? Perhaps it might be wiser to curb an impulse toward speculation, and make the point that the public release of the letter did seem to serve the interests of the journalist, Sandro Magister.

Keep in mind that this is not the first important Vatican document that Magister has published. In June the Vatican press office suspended the press privileges of the veteran Vatican journalist after he published an early draft of the papal encyclical, Laudato Si’.

At that time, the Vatican stressed that the draft published by Magister was not the final text of the encyclical. But when I compared Magister’s leaked version with the official document, I did not notice any significant differences. He did not have the final document, but he had something very close.

Similarly this time, Magister apparently did not have the exact text of the letter that the cardinals sent to Pope Francis. Cardinal Pell—who acknowledged that he had signed the letter—reported that there “are errors in both the content and the list of signatories.” But as as Magister would later point out, Cardinal Pell did not deny that the concerns expressed in the final draft were essentially the same as those in the Magister version.

What seems most likely, then, is that Magister somehow obtained a copy of a draft letter, which was being circulated among a number of cardinals, and was eventually revised and signed by a somewhat different group. That scenario (admittedly speculative) would explain why Magister had a letter that did not match the actual document, but raised the same questions; and why his list of signatories was inaccurate, but included at least some of the right names.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, another prelate who has confirmed his involvement, said that “many cardinals” had seen the letter, either in draft or final form. If there were multiple copies in circulation, then it is not too surprising that one copy found its way into the hands of a journalist. In these circumstances, actually, it is noteworthy that Magister did not have the final version; that fact suggests that the cardinals who signed the letter were not anxious to publicize it. More important, it suggests that they did not leak the letter after the fact, to put pressure on the Pope even after he had responded to them.

The available evidence, in short, does not allow us to identify the leaker, let alone his motivation. But this much we do know: once again the Vatican is caught up in an unhealthy welter of accusations and denials, on the basis of a leaked document that was intended for the eyes of the Pope alone. Once again someone at the Vatican seems determined to undermine someone else. Once again the dignity of the Holy See is being battered by stories of palace intrigues.

The Vatileaks scandal exposed a dysfunctional culture of politicking and backbiting within the Roman Curia. Largely in response to that scandal and the corruption it revealed, the cardinals went into the 2013 conclave determined to select a new Pontiff who would bring reform to the Vatican bureaucracy. The latest uproar is a reminder that this reform has not yet been accomplished.

In 2012, three cardinals commissioned by Pope Benedict XVI completed a thorough investigation of the Vatileaks scandal, and presented their conclusions to that Pontiff—who later turned over the dossier to his successor. The three-cardinal commission also briefed the College of Cardinals prior to the 2013 conclave. The Vatican has never disclosed what that commission discovered, and since the election of Pope Francis their investigation has been largely forgotten. It may be time to revisit that issue.

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: polish.pinecone4371 - Oct. 15, 2015 10:06 AM ET USA

    FYI, Magister is now saying he didn't first publish the letter, but Tornielli did: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351158?eng=y

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Oct. 15, 2015 9:09 AM ET USA

    I don't see why a group of cardinals sending a letter to the Pope is scandalous. Isn't that what they do? Or do we really think that Synods happen in 3 minute interventions?