The following comes from a July, 2011 story by John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter. It appeared just after Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal Angelo Scola as the new archbishop of Milan.
…I published a profile of Scola ahead of the Milan appointment in NCR. For those unfamiliar with him, here’s what you should know: If you like Benedict XVI, you’ll love Scola; even if you don’t, you’ll find it hard not to be charmed. He’s an extroverted, optimistic, remarkably authentic, Italian-speaking version of the pope.
(In a rather clumsy effort to express that point, The Telegraph in the
U.K. ran the headline, “Pro-Vatican cardinal to head Milan church.” I
know what they mean, but I can’t help asking: Who, exactly, would be
the “anti-Vatican” cardinals?)
The congruence between Scola and Benedict goes back at least four
decades, to Easter of 1971, when the two men first met at a restaurant
on the banks of the Danube River.
At the time, Scola was studying at the University of Fribourg, while
Ratzinger had recently joined the faculty at the newly-founded
University of Regensburg in Bavaria. The two men shared a passion for
Catholic thinkers such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac,
who had helped inspire the broad progressive majority at the Second
Vatican Council (1962-65), but who worried afterwards that the
ecclesial baby was being tossed out with the bathwater. Scola would
later publish book-length interviews with both figures.
Ratzinger was a co-founder of the theological journal Communio, with
Scola serving as the Italian editor. During the 1980s, Scola became a
key consulter to Ratzinger at the Vatican’s Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, while also teaching at the John Paul II
Institute for Marriage and the Family at Rome’s Lateran University. By
that time, Scola was established as an internationally recognized
scholar on moral anthropology.
Another connection between Scola and Benedict runs through the
Communion and Liberation movement, founded by the late Italian
Monsignor Luigi Giussani. For decades, Communion and Liberation was
seen as a conservative rival to the liberal establishment in the
Italian church. Scola was among Giussani’s early disciples, and rumors
have long suggested that Scola left the Milan seminary to be ordained
in the small diocese of Teramo in 1970 because of controversy around
The legendary Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, the public face of Communion
and Liberation in the United States, met the movement through Scola in
1993. He said Scola struck him as a remarkable blend of doctrinal
orthodoxy and zest for life.
“I had met lots of priests who were alive, free, spontaneous,
understanding, wanting to share people’s lives in all their aspects,
but they had problems with the teachings of the church,” Albacete said
in a 2005 interview. “On the other hand, I found priests who accepted
the teachings of the church, but in a subservient way. They were
rigid, boring and afraid.”
In Scola, however, Albacete said he found what he had been seeking.
“He was not rebelling against the church,” Albacete said. “Yet he was
the freest and most spontaneous priest I ever met.”
For his part, Benedict XVI has always had a special affection for
Communion and Liberation. He saw Giussani’s deep Christological faith
as an antidote to a tendency in the 1960s and 70s to turn Christianity
into a political force inspired by Marxist ideology. Signs of papal
esteem are almost ubiquitous, including the fact that the consecrated
women who run Benedict’s papal household are drawn from Memores
Domini, a group affiliated with Communion and Liberation.
As a result of their shared history, Scola has long felt a special
loyalty to Benedict XVI. When the pontiff was under fire from the
global media in 2010, related to his role in the sexual abuse crisis,
Scola publicly referred to those attacks as an “iniquitous
humiliation.” (Just to make sure no one missed the point, his press
person sent around an English translation of the cardinal’s remarks.)
* * *
Yet if Benedict and Scola breathe the same intellectual and
theological air, they are nonetheless different personalities.
For one thing, Benedict grew up in a fairly homogenous Catholic
environment in pre-war Bavaria, while the milieu in which Scola came
of age was more diverse. His father was a truck driver and a
Socialist, who encouraged his son to read L’Unità, a secular left-wing
Italian daily that’s often considered fairly anti-clerical. (To this
day, Scola credits L’Unità with introducing him to the life of the
As a young man, Scola studied under Emanuele Severino, Italy’s most
important contemporary philosopher, at the Catholic University of the
Sacred Heart in Milan. (In the philosophical guild Severino is
considered a “neo-Parminidean,” which I’m not even going to try to
define.) Over the years Severino repeatedly clashed with church
authorities, and in 1970 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith declared his thought “incompatible with Christianity”
because of his belief in “the eternity of all being” — which, among
other consequences, renders the idea of a Creator God obsolete.
Despite all that, Severino recently recalled Scola as a brilliant
student who earned the top marks he could award, and he warmly
described various encounters with the cardinal over the years.
“He’s a man who can arouse enthusiasm, and I say this with conviction:
Beyond being an intellectual of enormous ability, he has traits of
simplicity and naturalness which aren’t easy to find among the men of
the church,” Severino said.
(By the way, Severino brushed off suggestions that Scola’s ties to
Communion and Liberation will be a problem in Milan: “Frankly, I don’t
see him closed in as the animator of a movement, with all due respect
for that movement. His intellectual stature is superior, and goes
beyond,” he said.)
To this day, Scola’s interests range remarkably wide. For instance, he
says that by far his favorite book is the modernist novel The Man
Without Qualities, by the early 20th century Austrian writer Robert
Musil. Set amid the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the book
is often compared to works by Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann — certainly
not, in other words, the usual pious fare.
In terms of temperament, Scola is more of a “hail fellow well met”
than Benedict XVI. Among other things, he has a keen media savvy.
Scola’s top media aide, a laywoman named Maria Laura Conte, is
well-known among the Vatican press corps for her cheery and proactive
style, often volunteering to make her boss available — a striking
contrast to the wariness with which many prelates and their minions
view the press.
Across political and theological divides, Scola has a reputation for
being un-clerical, unpretentious, and not at all aloof. In Venice, for
instance, he set aside Wednesday mornings to meet anyone who wanted to
see him, whether or not they had an appointment.
Over the years, Scola’s priorities as a leader have also tended to be
fairly ad extra, meaning engaged with the world outside the church.
One signature cause has been his “Oasis Foundation”, launched in 2004
to promote solidarity among Christians in the Middle East and dialogue
with the Islamic world.
To be sure, Scola doesn’t play to universally positive reviews. A
prominent liberal Catholic movement in Italy, Noi Siamo Chiesa, issued
a statement on his move to Milan expressing “bitterness and
disappointment among those who believe in reform of the church.”
“This appointment is a product of an imposition from on high, which
leaves a large part of the diocese disconcerted,” the statement read.
“We see a bishop returning who wasn’t accepted here as a priest.”
(Given the historic rivalry between Communion and Liberation and the
progressive currents in Milan under Martini, the Scola appointment is
an especially bitter pill for many Milanese liberals. They seem to
feel a bit like Red Sox fans when they see the American League pennant
slipping away: “Please, God, anyone but the Yankees!”)
Scola’s nomination, the statement asserted, “confirms the scarce
spirit of ecclesical communion of those who now guide the church, who
want to impose a single line everywhere and at whatever cost. It’s the
line of those who want to put the Second Vatican Council into a deep
Love him or hate him, however, Scola is now firmly ensconced as the
Crown Prince of Catholicism. Regardless of what might happen in a
future conclave, it will be fascinating to watch how he chooses to
spend that political capital in the here-and-now.
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