Still Controversial: Cardinal Danneels and the Conclave of 2005

German journalist Paul Badde recounts the actions of the Belgian cardinal — whose participation in the recent family synod drew criticism — at the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s election.

Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels (r) with German Cardinal Walter Kasper in 2008.
Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels (r) with German Cardinal Walter Kasper in 2008. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Carolus/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ choice of Cardinal Godfried Danneels to attend last month’s Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family as one of his 45 papal delegates was heavily criticized on account of the Belgian cardinal’s record.

The archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels advised the king of Belgium to sign an abortion law in 1990, told a victim of clerical sex abuse to keep quiet and refused to forbid pornographic, “educational” materials being used in Belgian Catholic schools. He also once said same-sex “marriage” was a “positive development” and congratulated the Belgian government for passing same-sex “marriage” legislation, although he has sought to distinguish such a union from the Church’s understanding of marriage.

The cardinal, who was pictured standing next to Pope Francis on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on the night of the Pope’s election, also admitted in September to being part of what he called the St. Gallen “mafia” club that was opposed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and campaigned to prevent him being elected in 2005.

German journalist and author Paul Badde reported on their campaign at that time. In this interview with the Register, Badde, an expert on the Holy Face of Manoppello, recalls the events that took place in 2005, including the strong resistance of German Cardinal Joachim Meisner to the group’s campaign, which, he insisted, contravened conclave rules.

On Nov. 6, the Vatican is expected to announce Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges, who is supported by Cardinal Danneels, as the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. He will replace Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, viewed as a “Ratzingerian,” who had his resignation immediately accepted upon turning 75 over the summer.

The Register contacted Cardinal Danneels Nov. 3 to see if he would like to respond to the concerns raised about his actions, but he declined the request.


You say that during the 2005 conclave there was resistance to efforts by members of the so-called St. Gallen group to have Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio elected. Can you elaborate on that?

Paul Badde: I hadn’t heard of a so-called St. Gallen group in those days. I just knew that a certain group of cardinals had met in Villa Nazareth [a college residence in Rome founded by Cardinal Domenico Tardini] at the invitation of Cardinal Silvestrini, an ardent opponent of Cardinal Ratzinger.  I knew that from a very reliable source, who had told me that they were trying to have Jesuit Cardinal [Carlo] Martini elected, the popular archbishop from Milan. It’s true, also Cardinal Bergoglio from Buenos Aires was considered “papabile,” but wasn’t mentioned in that context. And [I learned] that they tried everything to prevent the election of Joseph Ratzinger. In the first photo after Benedict’s election, however, in the Sala Ducale, beside the Sistine Chapel, standing next to the new pope, a meter away, was Cardinal Joachim Meisner [then archbishop of Cologne] on his right side — with then another vacant meter on the right of Cardinal Meisner. It looked as if nobody would dare to come close to Cardinal Meisner, as if he were still glowing — as after an enormous fight.


How do you know this?

That’s what the photo is telling me. We were with Meisner on April 4, 2005. John Paul II had died April 2, but two days later, we went to Manoppello [famous for the Holy Face of Manoppello]. It was an appointment arranged in January of that year. And although his friend, John Paul II, had died two days before, the cardinal and I managed to slip away to Manoppello on Monday, April 4, sharing a long car ride together. He was enormously impressed by the Holy Face. He was the first bishop I know of who immediately identified the Sacred Veil with the “Soudarion” from the Holy Sepulchre mentioned in the Gospel of the Resurrection of St. John. He knelt down. We prayed a Rosary there, then returned to Rome by noon and prayed another Rosary right in front of John Paul II, who was lying in state in the Cappella Clementina, before he was carried to St. Peter’s Basilica later that afternoon. So the whole day was a very intimate situation, as you can imagine. It was no wonder that I called him later to ask for his advice when I heard right before the conclave that something was cooking in the Vatican that the media hadn’t heard of. That was on April 16, 2005.


What exactly did you hear?

Well, I’ve been told that, on April 5 — only three days after Karol Wojtyla’s death! — a group of cardinals had gathered secretly to prevent the election of Joseph Ratzinger, the right hand of the Polish Pope for decades.


Who was involved?

I’ve seen a list naming the cardinals: Silvestrini, Danneels, Murphy O’Connor, Martini, Lehmann, Kasper and Audrys Juozas Bačkis of Lithuania, and I had heard that “their absolute aim is to get Ratzinger out of the race”; and that they met at Villa Nazareth.


What was Cardinal Meisner’s reaction to this news?

He was upset, telling me that a conspiracy like this one was “absolutely against the explicit rules” which John Paul II himself had reshaped in his apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, of Feb. 22, 1996.


And what did you then ask him?

Well, after being that close with him a couple of days earlier, I asked him: “What shall I do? I’ve got the list: I don’t want to disturb anybody; I don’t want to blame anybody; I don’t want to raise any scandal.” At that time, I still felt new to reporting on the Vatican. I rather continued to feel much more with the tortured Middle East, where I had sort of lost my heart in Jerusalem, after being stationed there for some years.


And what did he answer or counsel you?

He said: “Just follow your conscience.” He didn’t tell me to do or write this or that. So I wrote an article where I said, “Most of my colleagues here in Rome are looking at the conclave as though it were a Dan Brown novel.” But I also said that some of the cardinals didn’t seem to follow the instructions of the Church either, and I listed some names of those involved in my article.


How did things then proceed?

The next day, the conclave began, and everything went very fast. I was sure Meisner was furious, and I imagine that he fought like a lion, even though he couldn’t speak any languages. His Italian is poor, his English worse. He has a sense of Polish, but he surely must have suffered a lot by this inability, being always so courageously outspoken in his mother tongue. I met him again on the first night of the papal election in front of his hotel, and he still looked exhausted. “I can’t tell you anything,” he told me, “but it doesn’t break the secrecy of the conclave when I admit that these were the hardest days of my life.”

I don’t think that he had Ratzinger in mind as his personal choice before the conclave — no matter how friendly they were.

Cardinal Danneels, however, skipped the dinner to which Pope Benedict XVI had invited all cardinals after his election that very same day.


What are your reflections now?

Danneels, by appearing in February 2013 on the balcony after Pope Francis’ election, shows he must feel very secure eight years after he failed to prevent the election of Pope Benedict. Note that he recently referred to his group as the “mafia.” I didn’t refer to them that way in 2005. He used that term, and he was proud of it. He was really proud of it. Recall that he had tried to get the king of Belgium to sign an abortion law, the king refused, and the cardinal tried to push him. Then he tried to cover up the prelate who tried to abuse his own nephew. So calling on him to be a consultor, papal delegate, for a synod on the vocation of marriage and the family was irritating to many.


Do you believe he, or the group, had some impact on the last conclave?

I’m not sure he triggered the last papal election; I doubt it. I don’t know. I’m a witness to what happened then, but I doubt they had an influence on the last conclave. The group disbanded; they grew frustrated. For that reason, Danneels liked to see it as a delayed victory, but I don’t think it was that way.


What’s the difference between the so-called St. Gallen group and, say, those who pushed for Cardinal Ratzinger to be elected, such as Cardinal Julian Herranz. Were they breaking the rules too?

No, because, apart from Silvestrini, they were cardinals in the conclave. You have pressure groups, that’s clear, but Ratzinger had no pressure group. He just seemed to be a natural choice for many, after his many years so close at the side of John Paul II, and even more so after his famous homily before the conclave warning fervently of “a dictatorship of relativism.” These other cardinals, however, tried to force a result. It was a true conspiracy, not a conspiracy theory. They had one aim: to prevent him, Ratzinger, from being elected.


During the most recent synod, I asked various synod fathers about Cardinal Danneels and why he was chosen as a papal delegate. They all expressed ignorance, saying they had nothing to say or didn't know anything about it.

Yes, I asked a number of bishops, too. They had no opinion about it either.


Is it a conspiracy of silence?

No, they don’t know how to react to it. They’re afraid, that’s the issue, so no one dares criticize the Pope for that decision. That’s for certain. They could comment, but they play innocent or naïve.


How important is it to understand the reform agenda of the St. Gallen group who met at Villa Nazareth? How much does that give us a clue about where this pontificate is heading?

They have an agenda, and have had it since right after the [Second Vatican] Council, after Humanae Vitae. Then we had a synod in Würzburg: They said it’s up to the parish priest to teach about contraception. So they had an agenda from then on. Then it’s important to note that nothing is new about what Kasper is declaring. He was talking about this in the early 1990s, but then it was a dispute between him and Cardinal Ratzinger. He was angry at Ratzinger, that he had won the day. Now, Ratzinger can’t say anything anymore, so his [Kasper’s] time has come.


Should there be some pressure from the faithful?

There was some, including a petition, but I don’t think it will lead anywhere. Of course, it was a signal that Pope Francis had invited Cardinal Danneels to the synod. And don't forget, from the same group that did everything, legally or illegally, to prevent Cardinal Ratzinger from being elected as pope in 2005, Cardinal Bačkis from Lithuania and Cardinal Kasper play key roles in last month's synod.


Cardinal Wilfrid Napier and others said an agenda and ideology were pushed at last year's extraordinary session, leading to accusations of an engineered synod. Did you see this latest one in the same way?

No. But I hope this synod won't be remembered as the “Mafia Synod” one day, deriving it from Cardinal Danneels’ own words. But then the synod shouldn’t be overestimated anyway, since it will be Pope Francis alone who is going to decide which direction the Church is heading — no matter what the synod has declared. His decision will be remembered.

Edward Pentin is the Register's Rome correspondent.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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