Page 15, 10th September 2010

10th September 2010
Page 15
Page 15, 10th September 2010 — The men in red

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Locations: Rome, Chicago, Cambridge


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The men in red

A lively history of the cardinals casts light on the workings of the Vatican, says Francis Phillips

The Cardinals


Michael Walsh, the retired librarian of Heythrop College, has written a lively and engaging account of the cardinals of the Church. It is not a history of the Sacred College and all its members; more a selective account of certain personalities who achieved this high office. As such, it adds light to the ancient and arcane workings of the Vatican throughout the centuries. I fear certain chapters might also add ammunition to those who think of the Vatican as the senior branch of the mafia.

This is not the author’s intention. After an informative introduction where we are treated to a brief history of the development of the College and the origins of the word “cardinal”, Walsh engages with some of the fascinating types who held this rank.

There are “The Precursors”, those cardinals who lived in the Middle Ages and whose names are now largely forgotten (though I had heard of St Peter Damian). These are followed by “The NearlyMen”, cardinals who almost made it to the highest office of all; among those one cannot miss out the Tudor cardinal, Reginald Pole, who only missed being elected pope by one vote. An Englishman, he was sunk by the French cardinals who turned up late to vote and who had clearly no understanding of the Entente-Cordiale.

Then there are “The Dynasts”, those stately Roman families who in every generation seemed to destine one of their sons to the College. These include the Colonna, who produced 18 cardinals, and the Orsini who outdid them with 20 cardinals and two popes. I feel these two dynasties cannot have been friends.

There are also “The Scholar Cardinals”: as Walsh comments, this is “part of the job description so it is difficult to select”. He includes Cardinal Cesare Baronio, known as Baronius, an attractive figure and close friend of St Philip Neri. Galileo records, presumably from a conversation he had with Baronius on the relationship between science and faith, that the latter told him: “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.’ Naturally there is a chapter devoted to “The Saints”. John Fisher is a star player here, of course. An exemplary bishop and founder, with Lady Margaret Beaufort, of St John’s College, Cambridge, he only permitted his students to speak in Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Carried to the scaffold by chair on June 22 1535 because of weakness incurred by his captivity in the Tower, he showed magnificent courage in his stand against Henry VIII.

There are further sections on “Men of War”, “Politicos” and “Secretaries of State”. Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val occupied this last office during the pontificate of Pius X. He composed the prayer for the conversion of England used in English Catholic churches for over half a century and was not happy with the proposed reunion of the Anglican Church to Rome so desired by Lord Halifax.

“The Exes” include those cardinals who resigned; as Walsh points out, as no one is “ordained” a cardinal, such a move should not present difficulties. It is not a common practice.

The two “Family Men” are English: Henry Stuart and Thomas Weld, both fascinating relics from English Catholic history. Finally, a chapter on “The Pastors” includes St Charles Borromeo, hero of the Counter-Reformation, and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. The latter remains somewhat controversial because of two phrases which underpinned his view of both Church teaching and the Church’s relationship to the world: “the seamless garment” for the first and “common ground” for the second.

In the idea of “the seamless garment” he insisted on weaving together both a defence of babies before birth and those convicted of the death penalty. Even though the right to impose the death penalty was removed from the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1999, many would argue that defence of the unborn should take precedence over other related life issues.

As for “common ground”, President Obama specifically quoted this phrase in a reference to the late cardinal when he gave his highly controversial address at the University of Notre Dame on May 17 2009. “Common ground” has now become more of a quicksand of misunderstood positions.

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