Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The cardinal who can't let go

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 22, 2014

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has resigned his post as the camerlengo, the official with primary responsibility for handling the temporal affairs of the Holy See in the interim after a Pope’s death. The duties of the camerlengo are not arduous, and Cardinal Bertone could surely fulfill them. Still his resignation took effect on his 80th birthday.

Pope Francis has confirmed that officials of the Roman Curia are expected to submit their resignations when they reach the age of 75. It has become customary for prelates to resign from even ceremonial posts at the age of 80.

Thus, for instance, in 1993 the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Rossi, resigned at the age of 80. He was succeeded by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who resigned at the age of 80. Next came Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. And then Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who celebrated his 80th birthday back in November 2007, but remains in office as dean at the age of 87.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals occupies one of those ceremonial posts. Ordinarily his duties are negligible, involving little things such as presenting the Christmas greetings of the cardinals to the Pope. But when a Pontiff dies the dean, like the camerlengo, becomes a central figure. He presides at the funeral of the deceased Pontiff and preaches the homily, with the eyes of the world focused on him.

In the case of Cardinal Sodano that focus would be unfortunate, because his prominence would inevitably prompt commentators to recall the scandals in which the Italian cardinal was embroiled: his strong support for the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, the late Father Marcial Maciel; his nephew’s role in a real-estate scam that claimed support from the Vatican Secretariat of State (which Cardinal Sodano then headed). Pope Francis has been working assiduously to clean up the Roman Curia. It would be a shame if, at his funeral, the spotlight turned toward an elderly prelate with that sort of past, giving commentators an opportunity to dredge up unwelcome old questions.

Pope Francis has also insisted that officials of the Roman Curia shouldn’t regard their positions as their own permanent possessions. On that score, too, Cardinal Sodano is an unfortunate model. He hung onto his post as Secretary of State for three months after his replacement was named in 2005, then declined to move out of the office and apartment reserved for the Secretary of State. He remains by all accounts a powerful force in Vatican affairs.

Poor Cardinal Sodano has trouble letting go. But it’s time. Past time.

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 See full bio.

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