The last bull: Cardinal Sodano goes out

National Catholic Reporter

Dec. 27, 2019

By Jason Berry

A scene in “The Two Popes,” the charming new Netflix movie, has Anthony Hopkins as a brooding, gentle Benedict XVI hearing the unprompted confession of Cardinal Jorge Borgoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce in an adroit balance of modesty and intellectual force. The Argentinian has gone to Rome seeking to retire at 75. Benedict rebuffs that. The tender plot distorts the reality of ecclesiastical ambition. Bergoglio reveals his agonizing struggle in the Dirty War as a young provincial, trying to protect a divided Jesuit community from the sadistic regime. Then, Benedict begins his confession, referencing “Fr. [Marcial] Maciel” – the notorious pedophile and Legion of Christ founder. At this point, director Fernando Meirelles cuts off the words: facial expressions convey Benedict’s remorse, speeding the plot past clergy sexual abuse.

In real life, a menacing shadow to both popes belonged to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a native of Piedmont in northern Italy. Sodano was the great protector of Maciel and other notorious predators. He was also a loyalist of Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, during the 1980s as papal nuncio in Santiago. Sodano helped Maciel gain support of affluent Chileans in establishing Legion schools there. In 1991, Pope John Paul II, impressed with Sodano’s anti-Communist credentials, made him Vatican Secretary of State. For nearly two decades he advanced the careers of most of the men who became Chilean bishops under John Paul and Benedict, along with many Vatican diplomats and officials in the Roman Curia who owed him allegiance.

Sodano, 92, was the church’s most powerful cardinal of the last generation. On December 21, Pope Francis “accepted” his resignation as dean of the College of Cardinals, in which post he practiced Machiavellian politics on a breathtaking scale. Sodano swallowed his fate in a photo-op with a smiling Francis and one of those ornamentally-phrased Vatican documents when a big man gets sacked. The pope’s motu proprio (on his own initiative) performs a verbal bow to Sodano, “whom I thank warmly for the high service rendered to the College of Cardinals in the nearly fifteen years of his mandate.” The document stipulates a five-year term for future deans, renewable if a pope so desires.

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