Editor: The following is an exclusive excerpt from Philip F. Lawler’s new book, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock. In the passage below, Lawler’s describes a secret progressive lobby in the Vatican known in its circles as the “St. Gallen Mafia.” As Lawler explains, lobbying for the election of a pope is gravely forbidden under Catholic canon law and has a punishment of excommunication.
Any powerful leader in any institution runs the risk that he will become the captive of his own Praetorian Guard, the trusted aides who tell him only what he wants to hear (or what they want him to hear) and exclude all discordant voices. For Francis, that danger apparently arose even before his election.
Late in 2015, in an authorized biography of the Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels, Jürgen Mettepenningen and Karim Schelkens revealed that a cabal of “progressive” cardinals had begun maneuvering for the election of Jorge Bergoglio long before the conclave of 2013. The group had formed years earlier, during the pontificate of John Paul II, to discuss how to resist what they saw as the unhealthy influence of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Along with Danneels, the group included the late Carlo Martini of Milan, the veteran Vatican insider Achille Silvestrini, England’s Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and the Germans Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper.
Upon the publication of his biography, Danneels referred to this group as a “mafia club,” an obviously imprudent choice of words suggesting a sinister conspiracy rather than a simple meeting of likeminded prelates. But the authors of the biography went considerably further, reporting that members of the group—dubbed the “St. Gallen mafia” in reference to the Swiss town where they had met—had worked against Cardinal Ratzinger during the conclave of 2005 and, after their failure to stop his election, began planning a campaign for Bergoglio in the next conclave.
If that report were accurate, it would constitute a major scandal. The rules of papal conclaves include a stern moral injunction against lobbying, and John Paul II had prescribed the penalty of excommunication for any prelate who sought to influence the vote of another cardinal. When the implications of the report were pointed out, Mettepenningen and Schelkens backtracked, saying that they had been misunderstood. The St. Gallen mafia had not formed a lobbying bloc during the 2005 conclave, they now said, and shortly after the election of Benedict XVI the group had stopped meeting.
But if this version of the story were accurate, it would really be no story at all. A few cardinals meeting to discuss their shared concerns about Vatican affairs would be an everyday event. Why would the authors bother to mention it? Why would Danneels make his odd, light-hearted reference to a “mafia club”? The authors had worked closely with Danneels, whose presence at the launch party signaled his approval of the work. So it seemed unlikely that the authors had been entirely mistaken about the nature and purpose of the St. Gallen group.
Then more fuel was added to the fire. In a biography of Francis, Austen Ivereigh wrote that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, whom Ivereigh once served as a close adviser, had been asked by “progressive” cardinals to sound out Bergoglio about the plan to promote his candidacy at the conclave of 2013. Murphy-O’Connor, who was then above the age of eighty and thus ineligible to participate in a papal election, approached the Argentine cardinal before the conclave and secured his assent to the plan. As Ivereigh reported:
[I]f he was willing, he said that he believed that at this time of crisis for the Church no cardinal could refuse if asked. Murphy-O’Connor knowingly warned him to “be careful,” and that it was his turn now, and was told “capisco”—“I understand.”
That “capisco” spoke to the possibility that Bergoglio realized there was a move afoot to promote his election and consented to the campaign—which, again, would have been in grave violation of the canons governing the papal election. And although the campaign may not have been organized by the St. Gallen mafia, the cast of characters—the “progressive” European prelates represented by Cardinal MurphyO’Connor—looked remarkably similar. With his one-word assent, Cardinal Bergoglio appeared to be putting himself in the hands of the conspirators, indicating that he was prepared to act under their direction.
One other senior prelate spoke openly about his involvement in the St. Gallen campaign. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., was also too old to participate in the 2013 conclave, but he did meet with the other cardinals in the “general congregations” that preceded the elections. In a surprisingly candid address to students at Villanova University in October 2013, the elderly cardinal recalled the preparations for the election.
“Before the conclave, nobody thought that there was a chance for Bergoglio,” McCarrick told his student audience. But then one evening he received a visit from “a very interesting and influential Italian gentleman,” who asked him for a favor. The mysterious guest spoke highly of Bergoglio, said that the Argentine cardinal would bring reforms to the Church, and urged McCarrick, “Talk him up.” As he recounted this intriguing story for the Villanova audience, McCarrick said that he had given a noncommittal answer. When his turn came to address the general congregation, however, he urged the election of a cardinal from Latin America.
Maybe there was no active conspiracy or illicit campaign for the election of Bergoglio. Maybe three different cardinals—Danneels, Murphy-O’Connor, and McCarrick—exaggerated their own roles in the process for the sake of a good story. But there can be little doubt that a group of liberal prelates saw the Argentine cardinal as their best hope for changes in the Church. They encouraged his candidacy, and the new pontiff, an outsider now thrust into the top spot at the Vatican, quite understandably would be inclined to look to these same men for advice. Before his election, Bergoglio, an unknown entity in Rome, had not been identified as a leader of the progressive bloc in the College of Cardinals. Now he had emerged from the conclave as the Roman pontiff, and as time passed it became increasingly clear that he intended to carry out the program that was favored by the prelates who had promoted his election.
Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News and author of the new book Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock.