Cardinal Tolentino Mendonça’s ambitions

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

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Pope Francis has maximized Vatican II. To be more precise, he has turned the moral teaching which had remained relatively solid into something as wobbly as the ecumenical teaching of the last council. Has he may be gone too far in his enterprise? At any rate, with Fiducia supplicans he has open a true legitimacy crisis as we saw entire episcopates (Africa, Hungary) refusing to implement it.

A variety of signs show that the “Bergoglian party” is in great turmoil and that consultations in its mist have increased since the declaration of 18 December 2023 from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith making possible the blessing of irregular couples and same sex couples, a declaration progressive strategists consider a tactical error, one of a man who is impulsive, all the more impatient that he is pressed for time.

On the contrary, on the conservative side, it is considered that this crisis opens new perspectives. And yet what can be hoped is only a certain realignment, the horizon remaining one of a conclave where 95 cardinals, that is a distinct 2/3 of the electors, have been named by Francis. If we adhere to the two categories defined by Benedict XVI in 2005, for those who accept Vatican II, “the hermeneutic of the reform in the continuity” and “the hermeneutic of rupture”, and that we consider John Paul II and Benedict XVI have represented the first of the two categories and Francis the second one, a return to the Wojtyla/Ratzinger’s position is not conceivable after Francis. This return, in fact, would not resolved what could not be resolved before[1].

Assessment of a pontificate

Of course what is at stake with the election in the Sistine Chapel is always more complicated than a binary ideological choice. For example, in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger had not only been chosen as a sort of super Wojtylian, who could increase the number of vocations, but also because he supported a moral clean-up of the clergy, and also maybe, paradoxically, because it was thought he would not put an emphasis as strong as his predecessor on Humanæ vitæ. Does geopolitics play a more or less unconscious role on the conclaves? 2005 saw, indeed, the time when post war Germany, fifteen years after absorbing the GDR, reached the height of its power.

And yet, the Ratzingerian pontificate has failed. Besides the impossibility to redo the unity of the Church around the “hermeneutic of reform in the continuity”, it was unable to establish itself even in Rome: facing a continuous and determined opposition, Benedict XVI with little inclination for acting authoritatively, hesitant to use the perfect weapon of the popes, curial and episcopal appointments, resigned after less than 8 years as pontiff. As a result, in 2013, a strong man seem to be the solution, and they found him. A bishop since 1992, Jorge Bergoglio was in reality a man with two faces: Peronist, de facto anti-communist and therefore hostile to the Marxist form of the first Liberation Theology; then, at the same time, a partisan of a type of liberation theology which, emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall, worked towards the liberalization of the constitution of the Church, the end of its moral rigidity and the promotion of an ecological theology. This second aspect had allowed him to become, as soon as the 2005 conclave where he finished second, the candidate of the Cardinal Martini line (even thought he did not very much appreciate him). The  “Janus” cardinal thus was able to count on all the progressive votes and to receive also those of many conservatives.

It is in 1999, as John Paul II’s pontificate was entering its last phase, at the Synod of European Bishops, that Cardinal Martini, Archbishop of Milan, had developed in a noteworthy address a real program for a pontificate. Eventually, he would not be able to implement it due to a Parkinson’s disease which prevented him to be a possible candidate. In this profession of faith which started with the words: “I had a dream”[2], Martini listed the “knots needed to be untied”, that is the issues to be addressed:

  • The knot of the “dramatic lack of ordained ministers” (in other words, the solution was to ordain married men);
  • The knot of the insufficient “place given to women in the Church” (the solution was to give them access to a variety of “ministries”);
  • The knot of the problems related to “sexuality” (the solution was to put Humanæ vitæ and its subsequent moral teaching under the bushel[3]);
  • The knot of the “discipline of marriage” (the solution was to allow “remarried” divorcees to gain access to the Eucharist, a recurring request at the time).

After his election in 2013, the Buenos Aires Jesuit applied the program of the Jesuit from Milan,  mainly a liberalization of moral. One of the two major documents of the Bergoglian pontificate to be remembered is Amoris Lætitia. The other one is Traditionis custodes which has for a purpose to put an end to the momentum of a return to the church before the Council, a breach opened by Summorum Pontificum. And because the modern world continues to move toward this nihilism denounced by Benedict XVI and to where conciliar liberal Catholicism is taking us, the declaration Fiducia supplicans presents itself as the final touch, a concession in the form of “mercy” toward the LGBT ideology. From now on, we can, in the name of Christ, bless this suicidal negation of nature and society[4]. In reality, as we know, it is only on the occasions of homosexual “marriages” that these blessings are being requested.

As a result an uncertain situation has arose in the college of cardinals. A discreet meeting, organized by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, an entity based in Texas, took place from 26 to 28 of September last, in Prague, to address the topic of “Gender ideology”. Those present included the following cardinals: Do Carmo da Silva, Archbishop of Dili, from East Timor, Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Agra (India), Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario, of Dacca, William Gob, Archbishop of Singapore, Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop emeritus of Genoa, Dominik Duke, Archbishop of Prague, Willem Eijk of Utrecht and also Mgr Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco. At this time, four of them – Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, Oswald Gracias, William Goh Seng Chye, Willem Eijk – are cardinal electors.

We could thus imagine the union of cardinals and classic conservatives, all scandalized by the document of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Can we then think possible the election of a pope who would defend a solid moral teaching? Probably not. On the other hand, we can totally think that the same group of cardinals could prevent the election of a plain “progressivist” cardinal (to this day, 45 cardinals would suffice).

To this we could add that if the election of 2013 was partially a reaction against the defect of authority the Church suffered under Benedict XVI, the next conclave will inevitably be the scene of a rejection of an excess in authority created by a pope with a chaotic and unpredictable style that no written or unwritten rule can stop (see the incredible manner with which the process against Cardinal Becciu was carried out, whatever his faults may have been, a cardinal who juggled impressive sums of money on behalf of the Holy See).

Cardinal José Tolentino Mendonça, a fake centrist

Therefore the way seems open to men ready to compromise or at least who present themselves as such. Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, does certainly try, as we have written before[5]. With more finesse, Cardinal Zuppi, the Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, with the support of the powerful network of the Sant’Egidio Community tries the same. He was appointed by the pope to explore the possibility of a peace negotiation in Ukraine and he succeeded in preventing the Italian Conference from falling, like the French Conference, into the trap of the virulent campaigns against sexual abuse. Furthermore, he is not afraid to get involved in celebrations of the ancient liturgy, every time unfolding the following theme: “There is room in the Church for everyone”. Maybe these are gestures and signs toward the conservative cardinals?

But he has approved Fiducia supplicans at the Conference of Italian Bishops. He managed to do it, skillfully, through the approbation of Cardinal Betori, Archbishop of Florence who is a conservative[6]. An approbation which might cost him heavily.

And then, there is another papabile often presented as a candidate of compromise. We mentioned him when we talked about the Catholic Herald’s opinion when they wrote about Cardinal Tolentino de Mendonça as a learned, urbane, “the kind of person acceptable to all factions and capable of gathering a large support among them[7].” In reality, Cardinal Mendonça, 58 years old, is a fake centrist. Portuguese from Madeira, a biblical scholar, a Dominican tertiary, he became Archivist and Librarian of the Roman Church in 2018. The same year, he was invited to preach the Lenten retreat for the Curia, and was also made a Cardinal. Appointed in September 2022, right after the reform of the Curia, Prefect of an important dicastery, Culture and Education, he succeeded both to Cardinal Ravasi who was Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and to Cardinal Versaldi who was Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

He is the author of poetry work, theatre, essays, prayers, for which he has received a series of literary prizes. Very much in line with the governing elites, he was designated in 2019 as Portuguese of the year by the weekly Expresso. It wouldn’t come to his mind, even for political reasons, to involve himself with traditionalists: “Today, we see Pope Francis be contested by a conservative wing of the Church and by certain well-known names, even cardinals who, to a certain extent, are ready to place traditionalism above tradition[8].”

However, José Tolentino Mendonça is open to “welcoming all”. In an interview given to Renascença, mentioned earlier, he celebrated Amoris lætitia: “We live in the mist of the city, in this space full of borders and full of invisible walls and existential blocks […] Whether Christians are remarried, wounded by disastrous marital experiences, or by the reality of new families, or homosexuals, they must find in the Church a place to be heard, welcomed and where there is mercy.” He wrote a preface for La teologia feminista en la historia, a book by his friend Sister Teresa Forcades, a feminist and Benedictine nun from Montserrat. He is on the same wavelength as she is traveling the world and working “toward a full inclusion of homosexuality in the Church”.

The Dicastery for Culture and Education is obviously made for him as a springboard. Not to mention the influential capacity of the Community of Sant’Egidio, if the Zuppi hypothesis did not take. For Sant’Egidio who included him in the 35th International meeting for Peace in 2021, Tolentino Mendonça gladly gives predications. In fact, José Tolentino Mendonça, like the persons who surround him, for example the very influential Jesuit Spadaro, former Director of the Civiltà Cattolica, sees himself in a post-Catholicism where the completion of secularization becomes an opportunity: the secularization of today, unlike the one that came from the Enlightenment, hostile to Catholicism, on the contrary works together with it, or rather the other way around, since it reconfigures itself as a “spiritual” doorway of postmodernity.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] See our article : “Tentatives of restoration of lost unity: twice a failure”, in For a true reform of the Church – Res Novae.

[2] Le concile dont rêve le cardinal Martini (lemonde.fr).

[3] In a collection of interviews, Nel cuore della Chiesa e del mondo, Marietti, Milan, 1991, he had declared he felt in disagreement with what he called a “rabbinic” moralism.

[4] In La défaite de lOccident (Gallimard, 2014), Emmanuel Todd considers that the adoption of homosexual marriage is a is a decisive anthropological marker which allows to inscribe «the ultimate end of Christianity as a social force». In France, the year for this marker is 2013.

[5] Cardinal Parolin in ambush – Res Novae.

[6] Zuppi: la pace è quello di cui c’è più bisogno. Non lasciamo solo il Papa (avvenire.it).

[7] Enter Cardinal Mendonça, newly-promoted love poet and possible future Pope – Catholic Herald

[8] Interview given to Renascença, 22 December 2016. Tolentino Mendonça: Com este Papa, « há mais pessoas a dar uma segunda oportunidade à Igreja » – Renascença (sapo.pt)