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Cardinal Scola: the man who was nearly Pope

Cardinal Scola (Getty)

A frank interview invites speculation about how Pope Scola would have been different

Cardinal Angelo Scola was considered a front runner at the last papal election. After the white smoke appeared, the Italian bishops’ conference mistakenly put out a communiqué congratulating him on his election. But he remained the man who, as the old line has it, entered the conclave as pope and left it as cardinal.

Now a book-length interview with Scola has been issued by Solferino, the publishing arm of the Milan-based paper Corriere della Sera. Ho Scommesso sulla Libertà (“I Bet on Liberty”) invites speculation about how a Pope Scola would have differed from Pope Francis.

The frank interview suggests that Scola would have avoided the ambiguity that marks Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia on the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist. Scola asserts that Amoris Laetitia misses out on the essential link between the Eucharist and matrimony. “Christian marriage,” he tells his interviewer Luigi Geninazzi, “lives on the fundamental Eucharistic gift of Christ as spouse of the Church.”

He argues that Amoris ignores John Paul II’s 1981 exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which said that remarried couples must abstain “from the acts proper to married couples” if they wish to receive Communion. For six years Scola was in charge of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

As he considers priestly celibacy to be a great gift, Scola is unlikely to be open to married men becoming priests, which is expected to be considered at the Amazon synod in October.

The book reveals some interesting biographical details about Scola. Born in 1941, he is the second son of a very religious mother and a socialist truck driver “who worked like a slave so that I could study”. A red-haired youth, he had virtually abandoned religion, but rediscovered it at university. He was one of the first adherents of what was to become the Communion and Liberation movement, founded in 1954 by the Milanese priest Don Luigi Giussani. Giussani taught that ultimately Catholicism is not based on doctrine but rather an event: a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. He was a strong influence on Scola’s theology.

Scola studied engineering in Milan for two years before switching to philosophy, which he continued at Fribourg in Switzerland, where he became an assistant professor. After graduation he decided to become a priest and was ordained at the age of 29. He became the youngest bishop in Italy when appointed to Grosseto in Tuscany in 1991, age 49. One of his initiatives was to help Aids victims.

Next, he was appointed rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and gained a reputation as a feisty, can-do organiser. In 2002, he was appointed Patriarch of Venice, where he founded Oasis, a periodical on Christian-Muslim relations, and a university, the Fondazione Studium Generale Marcianum. His successor, Cardinal Francesco Moraglia, downsized the foundation, but its canon law faculty, the only one in northern Italy, survives.

Scola expected Venice to be his last posting. But after nine years, when Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi retired as Archbishop of Milan, Fr Julián Carrón, Don Giussani’s successor as head of Communion and Liberation, wrote to Cardinal Giovanni Bertello, nuncio to Italy, criticising Milan’s two previous archbishops without naming them and pleading for the appointment of Scola to ensure a “clear, firm faith”.

Scola says he knew nothing of the “inaccurate and clumsy” letter. Indeed, he compares his approach in Milan to that of the penultimate predecessor, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, saying that both analysed problems in depth. But he accepts that there was a stark difference: Martini saw the possibility of finding optimistic solutions, thereby “winning a reputation as a progressive”. By contrast, Scola says, “I didn’t. I saw the need to reaffirm the certainties the Church has reached without excluding possible evolutions. Man needs certainty to walk forward.”

Scola recalls that when he visited his predecessor a few days before the latter’s death in 2012 Martini had difficulty talking but managed to say: “The Church has power regarding the sacraments.” Scola took this to mean it could ordain women priests, but he does not agree.

Scola also reaffirms his friendship with Roberto Formigoni, the most prominent member of Communion and Liberation, who governed Lombardy for 18 years to 2013 and was tipped as a possible Italian prime minister. But he was tried for corruption and condemned to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

Scola says he hopes the judiciary will “rapidly clarify matters” – which suggests he may have been speaking before the final sentence was handed down. Although as a bishop Scola put distance between himself and Communion and Liberation, his association with it probably was not to his advantage in the papal election given its economic, cultural and political clout.

In Milan, Scola made a point of being a traditional Ambrosian bishop, wearing the ring of a predecessor, Cardinal Ildebrando Schuster, and historic chasubles. But he also favoured the building of a local mosque (but for various reasons it has not yet been built).

In the book he claims that, as Christian roots are still strong in Italy, the Church can experience a revival. For him, small communities and larger movements will have a crucial role in the future. But they must not be isolated from the Church as a whole, as that would be a “negation of Christianity”.

If he had not become a priest, Scola says, he might have been a politician, like his father and his elder brother, who was a Christian Democrat mayor, because he has always wanted to help form communities.

Scola retired from Milan in 2017 and is now a parish priest at Imberido, a village of 1,300 souls near his birthplace in the hills overlooking Lake Como.

Scola looks robust, but he discloses that he suffered tuberculosis for a year, and Addison’s disease (a rare disorder of the adrenal glands) for six years. Because it was not diagnosed correctly, he was advised to undergo psychoanalysis. His analyst was a Jesuit priest of the school of Jacques Lacan and the experience was “helpful”.

Scola has written 26 books, including book-length interviews with the 20th-century theological giants Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar (who was a friend and mentor).

He greatly admires John Paul II and also Joseph Ratzinger, with whom he worked closely on the review Communio and as a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He describes an 80th birthday party for von Balthasar at Castel Sant’Angelo, a stone’s throw from St Peter’s, on a clear warm night with a full moon. Guests were entertained by a piano-playing duo: von Balthasar and Ratzinger.

He also recounts an exchange with Ratzinger before he became pope which shows that his mild-mannered friend could also be severe. Scola had advised him how he should act in a certain matter, but Ratzinger did not respond and the conversation took a different course. But later, when they parted, Ratzinger said: “Dear Don Angelo, there’s nothing worse than giving advice when it’s not requested.”

Although he disagrees with Francis on certain issues, Scola praises the latter’s charisma and communication skills. He says he found him very attentive when, as Archbishop of Milan, he went more than once to talk about clerical abuse.

He adds that he never believed the pre-conclave media hype about him becoming pope, adding that, after Benedict’s unexpected retirement, a decisive change for the papacy was in the air. How right he was.

Desmond O’Grady is a journalist, author and playwright living in Rome