Cardinal Danneels' Biographers Retract Comments on St. Gallen Group

But the cardinal's assertion that the secretive "mafia-like" group existed and opposed Joseph Ratzinger still stands

Cardinal Danneels at a launch of the new authorized biography.
Cardinal Danneels at a launch of the new authorized biography. (photo: Screenshot)

The authors of a new authorized biography of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels, have issued a correction to earlier comments quoted in a Belgian newspaper and which I reported here

Karim Schelkens and Jürgen Mettepenningen, authors of Godfried Danneels Biographie, have stressed that the “St. Gallen club” of reformist prelates was not a lobby group that prepared for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to be elected Pope.

They say their quote in the original article in “Le Vif”, which had said “the election of Bergoglio was prepared in St. Gallen” by Cardinal Danneels and others, was a mistake made "after their approval and correction" of the quote.

Now they have stated that the “election of Bergoglio corresponded with the aims of St. Gallen, on that there is no doubt. And the outline of its program was that of Danneels and his confreres who had been discussing it for ten years.”

They stressed that, as this goal was not met in the 2005 conclave, and the St. Gallen club no longer convened after 2006, their original quote gave the false impression that it was a lobby group rather than an informal one. Cardinal Danneels this week referred to it as a kind of "mafia" club. 

Despite this, according to the new biography, after 2003 the St. Gallen group became of "strategic importance" with regards the 2005 conclave.

The authors stress in the book that with its array of members including Cardinals José da Cruz Policarpo, then Patriarch of Lisbon, as well as Cardinals Martini, Danneels, Murphy-O'Connor, Silvestrini, Husar, Kasper and Lehmann, members of the St. Gallen group felt it could have “significant impact” if each of them used their network of contacts.

The authors further write that in the days leading up to the 2005 conclave, cardinals of the group sent a postcard to Bishop Ivo Fürer, founder of the group, with the message: "We are here in the spirit of Sankt Gallen."*

Cardinal Danneels’ two biographers do not mention in the book lobbying by ex-members of the group during the 2013 conclave.

In The Great Reformer, Austen Ivereigh writes that members of the disbanded group and others, whom he calls “Team Bergoglio”, did not ask Cardinal Bergoglio if he would be willing to be a candidate, but they believed this time that the crisis in the Church would make it hard for him to refuse if elected.

This was in accordance with conclave rules, and corrected an earlier version of the book which stated that "Team Bergoglio" seized the initiative in the days leading up to the 2013 conclave to “promote their man," first confirming with with the cardinal that he was willing to become Pope, and then canvassed on his behalf.

Still, although the secretive club hadn’t formally met since 2006, it’s safe to say that it helped form a network that paved the way for at least favoring Cardinal Bergoglio at the conclave seven years later.

In their chapter on St. Gallen, the authors of Cardinal Danneels’ authorized biography say the group, which was founded in 1995, met annually to discuss various themes including 'the situation of the Church', 'primacy of the Pope', 'collegiality', and 'John Paul II's succession’.

Its members also discussed centralism in the Church, the function of bishops’ conferences, development of the priesthood, sexual morality, the appointment of bishops, and other such issues, the authors write.

Schelkens and Mettepenningen also note in the chapter that the personalities and theological ideas of the members sometimes differed, but one thing united them: their dislike of the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In a later chapter on the resignation of Pope Benedict and the 2013 conclave, the authors say Cardinal Danneels was “confounded” ('verbijsterd' in Dutch) when he heard the news of the resignation. But he “admired” ('bewonderde') Benedict’s courage.

They write also that the cardinal and Benedict XVI had a sort of reconciliation meeting in September 2012. The late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini, a leading "reformer" in the St. Gallen group, had suggested this to Pope Benedict shortly before his death.

On February, 27th 2013, Cardinal Danneels gave a press conference in which he gave high praise for Benedict, saying his style resembled the early Church fathers and even noted his “enormous efforts” to bring back the Society of St. Pius X, saying it showed him "to be a reconciler”.

The cardinal then offered his own “wish-list” for the Church. This included unity in diversity (to be achieved through decentralization), synods to develop a better culture of debate, the formation of a “crown council”, and reform of the Curia. He also said careerism in the Vatican should be ended and he recommended a Third Vatican Council. At the end of the conference, he said: "We need a Francis", according to the book’s authors. (p. 496).

Cardinal Danneels says in the book the pre-conclave meetings were some of the “most interesting” meetings of his career as a cardinal, thanks to the openness of the discussions.

He was particularly happy that the Pope wished to create a crown council, and that one of its members would be Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the archbishop of Kinshasa. He and Cardinal Danneels have been good friends since the 1980s. Along with Cardinal Danneels, the African cardinal is also one of the 45 papal delegates at the upcoming Synod. 

* note that campaigning for candidates isn’t out of the ordinary in anticipation of papal elections. Shortly before the death of Pope St. John Paul II in 2005, various prelates were also pushing for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be his successor. One of the most vigorous was Cardinal Julián Herranz, then president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who helped ensure the cardinal leapt “to the top of the list of candidates for the papacy”, according to Vaticanist Sandro Magister.