The sudden death of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra has deprived the Church of one of its major personalities. The Italian cardinal, who died last week aged 79, was a leading protagonist in the cultural and religious battles of our times.
His life story, especially in his final years, was dramatic. It was marked by fidelity to the pope and the Church, and by suffering over what he considered to be a distortion of Church doctrine. He was one of the four cardinals who signed the dubia raising questions about the post-synodal exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. That certainly wasn’t an easy step for him.
In 2014, along with other scholars, Caffarra wrote an article in a book that was opposed to the thesis of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who argued that some divorced and remarried people should be able to receive Holy Communion after a
Critics accused Caffarra of being against the pope. He replied: “Forgive me the joke: I’d rather hear someone say that the Archbishop of Bologna has a mistress than that he thinks contrary to what the pope thinks. Because if a bishop has a thought contrary to that of the pope, he must go. He just has to go from the diocese, because he would lead the faithful on a road that is no longer that of Jesus Christ. Then he would lose himself eternally and would risk the eternal loss of the faithful.”
Caffarra insisted that the charge of being against the pope was “something that deeply embitters me because it is slanderous”.
A distinguished moral theologian, Caffarra led the Archdiocese of Bologna from 2004 to 2015. He was the successor of one of the most educated and intelligent cardinals that Italy has known in recent decades, Giacomo Biffi. Biffi was the man who called Bologna the communist “capital” of Italy, “satiated and despairing”. Caffarra was his heir, and he knew how to balance careful, discreet and humble activity towards the poor and needy with top-level academic and cultural activities.
Caffarra was previously archbishop of Ferrara-Comacchio. Pope John Paul II had loved and appreciated him, and transferred him to Bologna in 2003. Benedict XVI gave him the red hat three years later. After his retirement in 2015, he suffered from illness, but that didn’t stop him from continuing his activities in defence of the Church’s tradition.
Among the four cardinals who signed the dubia – the other three were Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke and Joachim Meisner – he was certainly the leading figure, both for his specific competence in moral theology and because of the force of his personality.
Last spring he wrote Pope Francis a letter, which was unanswered, in which he asked him to receive the four cardinals to meet them and clarify their doubts. Just before he sent the letter, he met Francis while he was on a pastoral visit to Carpi. They hugged, but Francis, sitting next to him at lunch, preferred to converse with an elderly priest and with the seminarians who were sitting at the same table.
The letter sent to the Pope began with a moving profession of faith:
We wish to begin by renewing our absolute dedication and our unconditional love for the Chair of Peter and for Your august person, in whom we recognise the Successor of Peter and the Vicar of Jesus: the “sweet Christ on earth”, as St Catherine of Siena was fond of saying. We do not share in the slightest the position of those who consider the See of Peter vacant, nor of those who want to attribute to others the indivisible responsibility of the Petrine munus [ministry]. We are moved solely by the awareness of the grave responsibility arising from the munus of cardinals: to be advisers of the Successor of Peter in his sovereign ministry. And from the sacrament of the episcopate, which “has placed us as bishops to pasture the Church, which He has acquired with his blood” (Acts 20:28).
The letter concluded with these words: “Faced with this grave situation, in which many Christian communities are being divided, we feel the weight of our responsibility, and our conscience impels us to ask humbly and respectfully for an audience.”
The request was never granted.
What we know of Caffarra’s final days we owe to the writer Antonio Socci, whom Caffarra counted as a friend. Socci reported that a priest had visited Caffarra shortly before the cardinal’s death “to tell him of his pain concerning the disaster in the Church and telling him of the facts”. The priest recalled that Caffarra burst into tears and said: “The Lord will not abandon his Church. The Apostles were 12 and the Lord will start over with a few. Imagine the suffering of St Athanasius, who was alone to defend the truth for the sake of Christ, of the Church and humanity. We must have faith, hope and strength.”
The priest said that, although the cardinal was very grieved, “he gave me much courage and love for the Church”. This is remarkably similar to what we know of the last days of Cardinal Meisner, who passed away not long ago. Both men suffered a lot because of the confusion and division in the Church of our day.
Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.