What Does Cardinal Sodano’s Departure as Dean of the College of Cardinals Mean?

COMMENTARY: As well as marking the end of a long and sometimes controversial career, it also signals Pope Francis’ preparations for the eventual election of the next pope.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano
Cardinal Angelo Sodano (photo: 2013 InterMirifica.net)

The Dec. 21 resignation of Cardinal Angelo Sodano as the dean of the College of Cardinals is the conclusion of a long career, not without controversy. It occasioned a change in the office of the dean itself, which will now be subject to a five-year term. It also signals that Pope Francis is preparing for the end of his pontificate, with no evidence that it is coming sooner rather than later, let alone imminent.


Cardinal Sodano’s Career

Angelo Sodano was a longtime papal diplomat, serving as nuncio in Chile during the 1980s. He was appointed secretary of state by St. John Paul II in 1990, where he served until 2006, when he retired at age 78 under Pope Benedict XVI. He had been dean of the college since April 2005, when he succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had been dean until his election as pope.

When the complete collapse of the Chilean episcopate took place in 2018 after the disastrous papal visit, some defenders of Pope Francis attempted to blame the compromised state of the Chilean episcopate on the recommendations that Cardinal Sodano made as nuncio in the 1980s.

More significant, it is now widely known that when allegations against Legionaries of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel arrived in Rome in 1998, there was a struggle between Cardinal Sodano and Cardinal Ratzinger over how they would be investigated. This resulted in a delay for several years until Father Maciel retired as superior of the Legionaries in January 2005. Cardinal Ratzinger immediately resumed the investigation, which was ongoing when he was elected pope in April 2005.

The subsequent year, Father Maciel was removed from all public ministry and sentenced to a life of prayer and penance. (Last week, the Legionaries released a report stating that their order’s founder had more than 60 victims.) Benedict replaced Cardinal Sodano as secretary of state four weeks after the Maciel case was resolved. The Maciel matter remains a stain on Cardinal Sodano’s record.


Office of the Dean

The “Dean” of the College of Cardinals is its highest-ranking member. On ceremonial occasions, he speaks on behalf of the college, and takes the prime place, second only to the Holy Father, at public occasions.

More important, upon the death or abdication of a pope, he conveys the official notification of the vacancy in the Apostolic See and presides over all meetings of the cardinals before the conclave, which he opens as the celebrant and homilist for the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff. If the pope has died, he celebrates and preaches the funeral Mass.

The College of Cardinals, composed since the time of St. John XXIII almost exclusively of those already ordained bishops, is divided into three ranks. While all are bishops, they are grouped into three classes: “cardinal deacons,” who are bishops that usually head up Vatican offices; “cardinal priests,” who are usually bishops who have their own dioceses around the world; and “cardinal bishops,” who are the most senior Vatican officials and reside in Rome.

While the number of cardinal priests and cardinal deacons has no limit, there are only six cardinal bishops. Those six elect from their own number a dean and a vice-dean. The current vice-dean is Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

All cardinals lose their right to vote in the conclave upon turning 80. St. Paul VI decreed as much in 1970. However, cardinals hold their rank until death, regardless of whether they might enter the conclave or not. The same applies to the dean.

This has led to an unusual situation, post-1970. Before 1970, all cardinals were eligible to enter the conclave regardless of age. But after 1970, it became possible for a dean to be too old to enter the conclave and vote. This happened at the first conclaves after the age limit came into force. In 1978, the dean was Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, then 85 years old. While he performed the other functions of the dean — including preaching the funeral Masses for St. Paul VI and John Paul I — it seemed strange that the actual dean of the college would not be in the conclave, leading the cardinals as they set about their most important task.

There was a comic moment in October 1978 when the pope was announced from the central loggia of St. Peter’s. Upon hearing the first name “Carolum” — Latin for Karol in Polish, but also Carlo in Italian — a voice went up in the crowd, “They’ve gone mad!” thinking it was the 85-year-old Confalonieri.

In 1986, Cardinal Confalonieri died. Like all his predecessors — except for a few who were elected pope — he died as dean. His successor as dean, Cardinal Agnelo Rossi, took the view that the dean should be an elector in the conclave, and so he resigned as dean when he turned 80 in 1993. (He died in 1995.)

Cardinal Rossi was succeeded by the first African to serve as dean, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who likewise retired as dean in 2002, when he turned 80 and aged out of the conclave.

Cardinal Gantin was succeeded by Ratzinger as dean, who was elected as pope in 2005 at the age of 78. In the conclave it falls to the dean to ask the newly-elected pope whether he accepts his election. Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean, could not ask himself, so it fell to the vice-dean to pose the question. The vice-dean was Cardinal Sodano.

Cardinal Sodano was in turn elected dean and turned 80 in 2007 when, in accord with recent precedent, he would have been expected to relinquish the role of dean. He made it very clear that he intended to stay until death and Pope Benedict, not wanting a fight, did not force the issue.

Cardinal Sodano, then 86, acted as dean in 2013 during the sede vacante after the abdication of Benedict XVI, though of course there was no papal funeral Mass to celebrate.

Does it matter who is the dean? Not very much. In 2013, there were worries that Cardinal Sodano’s record on the Legionaries and Father Maciel might bring unwelcome attention to his duties as dean. In the event, it didn’t matter. Cardinal Confalonieri in 1978 also had no impact.

Only in 2005 did the dean make a difference. Cardinal Ratzinger’s preaching at the funeral of John Paul II and his homily at the election Mass had an enormous impact, certainly contributing to his election. But that was because of who Cardinal Ratzinger already was; his enormous stature inflated the importance of the dean, not the other way around.


Post-Pontificate Preparations

At age 83, Pope Francis is likely thinking about the end of his pontificate, even if there are no signs that his health or energy are flagging. On Nov. 25, it was announced that the Pope’s personal secretary, Father Fabián Pedacchio Leániz, an Argentinian, would return to the Congregation for Bishops where he began working in 2007. It is standard practice for a pope to make provision for his personal secretaries, to protect them from any ill-treatment in the future. It is expected that Father Pedacchio will soon be promoted within the congregation.

On Dec. 8, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila to the senior curial post of prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, thus installing in Rome the cardinal known as the “Asian Francis.”

Now the Holy Father is attending to the leadership of the College of Cardinals. There are currently five cardinal bishops who are older than 85, the oldest being Cardinal Sodano at age 92. The first step was taken in June 2018, when Pope Francis added four under-80 cardinal bishops, superseding the usual limit of six. The four were Cardinals Pietro Parolin, Leonardo Sandri, Marc Ouellet and Fernando Filoni. The idea was that some of the cardinal bishops would be in the next conclave.

Now the dean will be replaced, likely elected from among those four. And Pope Francis has put a five-year term limit on service as dean, guaranteeing that in the future, as the dean ages, he can be replaced in due course with someone young enough to enter the conclave.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

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