The persistent influence of Cardinal Sodano
At the ripe old age of 94, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray—the 3rd-oldest living cardinal—has finally been replaced as vice-dean of the College of Cardinals. But Cardinal Angelo Sodano, whose own 90th birthday is coming in November, continues in his role as dean.
The vice-dean of the College of Cardinals occupies a ceremonial post. But for the dean, the position does involve certain responsibilities. 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 (or resigns) the dean 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.
Since the new Code of Canon Law took effect in 1983, diocesan bishops have been required to submit their resignations upon reaching the age of 75. That requirement does not apply to the prelates who hold honorary posts at the Vatican, yet most have stepped down at least by their 80th birthdays.
Take for instance the office of the camerlengo, who serves as temporary head of state for the Vatican during a papal interregnum. Since the new Code took effect, that office has been held by:
- the late Cardinal Paolo Bertoli, who retired at the age of 77;
- the late Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, who died before reaching the age of 80;
- Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who retired at 76;
- Cardinal Tarscio Bertone, who retired on his 80th birthday; and
- the incumbent, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is 74
It’s true that the duties of the camerlengo are potentially more demanding than those of the dean (to say nothing of the vice-dean) of the College of Cardinals. Still, since 1983 the deans have followed the same pattern:
- The late Cardinal Angelo Rossi resigned as dean in 1993, a month after his 80th birthday.
- The late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin resigned as dean in 2005, 6 months after his 80th birthday.
- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ceased to be dean when he was elected Supreme Pontiff, at the age of 78.
- Cardinal Sodano, who celebrated his 80th birthday in November 2007, remains in office.
Cardinal Sodano has already demonstrated his staying power. He remained at the powerful post of Secretary of State until he was nearly 79. Even after Cardinal Bertone assumed the title of Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano remained for weeks at the same desk, forcing his successor to work out of another temporary office outside the apostolic palace. It nearly took the Jaws of Life to remove him from the Vatican apartment set aside for the Secretary of State. And from all accounts he remains a powerful force behind the scenes at the Vatican.
Pope Francis has said, on more than one occasion, the Vatican officials should not look upon their jobs as personal fiefdoms. Recently the Pope raised some eyebrows by saying that Church leaders should know when to step down. Here’s a clear-cut case.
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