Cardinal Biffi, Champion of Catholic Orthodoxy, R.I.P.
NEWS ANALYSIS: The humorous, plain-spoken preacher, whose theological and spiritual perceptions greatly impressed Pope Benedict XVI, died July 11 at the age of 87.
BOLOGNA, Italy — Humor, realism and culture characterized the life of Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, who died July 11 at the age of 87. The former archbishop of Bologna had retired in 2003 and was living in small house near Bologna, but had been hospitalized for the past year in a clinic, where he died after a long sickness.
The news of Cardinal Biffi’s sickness reached Pope Francis during the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the Family, and the Pope sent the cardinal a letter on June 5 saying he was close to the cardinal’s suffering.
Giacomo Biffi was born on June 13, 1928, in Milan, and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Milan in 1950, when he was only 22. Cardinal Colombo, then archbishop of Milan, assigned him as a parish priest in the parish of Santi Martiri in Legnano (a small town close to Milan) and in the Milanese parish of Sant’Andrea.
Blessed Paul VI appointed him auxiliary bishop of Milan in 1975, and he was consecrated a bishop early the following year. He became archbishop of Bologna in 1984.
St. John Paul II made him cardinal during the May 1985 consistory, and he was among the members of the Congregations for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Clergy and Catholic Education.
Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, who succeeded Cardinal Biffi as archbishop of Bologna, said his funeral Mass June 14. In a crowded church, he explained that “Cardinal Biffi profoundly loved the Church of Bologna” and “from this mystic jealousy comes the way he identified the errors of this holy flock of Bologna.”
Once he was appointed archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Biffi had described the city as “comfortable and desperate,” and this formula became even more famous than his episcopal motto, Ubi fides ibi libertas (Where faith is, there is freedom).
Esteemed by Benedict
Benedict XVI held him in great esteem — it is widely acknowledged that Cardinal Ratzinger voted for Cardinal Biffi during the 2005 conclave that eventually elected him as Benedict XVI.
Two years after his election as pope, Benedict XVI wanted Cardinal Biffi to preach the Lenten spiritual exercises for the Roman Curia. At the end of the exercises, Benedict XVI thanked Cardinal Biffi “for your realism, sense of humor and concreteness.”
Benedict XVI also thanked him for “mentioning the daring theology of one of your housekeepers: I would not dare to submit the phrase ‘The Lord has perhaps his defects’ to the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
Cardinal Biffi's theology was one mixed with concrete thoughts. Speaking about eternity, he theorized the “theology of tortellini” — the stuffed pasta that originated in Bologna — by saying: “Eating a tortellino with the aim of eternal life is always better than eating it thinking that you will go into the abyss.”
And when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the declaration Dominus Iesus on the unicity and salvific universality of Christ in 2002, he strongly defended it from critics who arouse even from within the Church — one of the most prominent of whom was Cardinal Walter Kasper, then president of the Pontifical Council for the Promoting Christian Unity.
Cardinal Biffi stood with the declaration and said: “That Jesus is the only and needed Savior for everyone is a truth that for 20 centuries — starting from Peter’s speech after Pentecost — no one felt obliged to recall. The fact that nowadays it was recalled is a measure of how grave is the current situation. This document, which recalls the primordial, simplest, most essential certainty, has been criticized. And it was criticized at every level: in pastoral action, theological teaching and the hierarchy.”
Addressed the Issue of Homosexuality
In his memoirs (Memorie di un Italiano Cardinale) he also addressed the issue of homosexuality, a reflection particularly relevant in view of the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family.
“Regarding homosexuality,” Cardinal Biffi wrote, “Christian thought teaches us to distinguish between the respect we owe to persons, which implies the rejection of every social or political marginalization of homosexuals (with the exception of the issues of marriage and family, which are inderogable), and the rejection of any applauded 'ideology of homosexuality.'”
He added that “the ideology of homosexuality — as every ideology which becomes aggressive and aspires to political gain — has become a threat to our legitimate autonomy of thought: who does not share it risks being condemned to a sort of cultural and social marginalization.”
According to Cardinal Biffi, “attempts on freedom of judgment begin with language. Who is not resigned to welcome ‘homophilia’ (that is, a theoretical appreciation of homosexual relationships) is then accused of ‘homophobia.’”
Reading Cardinal Biffi’s words can provide a snapshot of the current reality, as he identified many of the Church’s current challenges.
In another book, La Bella, la Bestia e il Cavaliere (The Beauty, the Beast and the Knight), Cardinal Biffi addressed the issue of the Second Vatican Council, contrasting the real Council with the “council of the media,” a distinction that Benedict XVI made famous in his Feb. 13, 2013, speech to Roman clergy, delivered two days after the announcement of his abdication.
Cardinal Biffi wrote that “a virtual council arose, which has a place not in the history of the Church, but in the history of ecclesiastical imagination.”
Rest in peace, Cardinal Biffi.