Julia Meloni’s new book The St. Gallen Mafia provides a valuable service to readers curious about the origins of the current pontificate. Drawing on a wide range of sources, she fills in the picture of the St. Gallen Mafia, a group of influential liberal prelates who plotted for years to elect a progressive-minded pope.
The existence of the group became known in 2015 after one of its prominent members, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, bragged about its role in the election of Pope Francis. “The St. Gallen group is a sort of posh name. But in reality we said of ourselves, and of that group: ‘The Mafia,’” he told the press. The group, he explained, had met since the mid-1990s in the Swiss town of St. Gallen. Its members included a roster of prominent progressive cardinals in the Church: Achille Silvestrini, Carlo Maria Martini, Walter Kasper, and Basil Hume, among others.
“The election of Bergoglio was prepared in St. Gallen, without doubt,” said Karim Schelkens, a biographer of Danneels. “And the main lines of the program of the pope is carrying out are those that Danneels and company were starting to discuss more than ten years ago.” (Schelkens later said his statement was incorrect, but that “election of Bergoglio corresponded with the aims of St. Gallen, on that there is no doubt.”)
The group had hoped to elect Jorge Bergoglio at the 2005 papal conclave. “On the eve of the conclave, in Silivestrini’s Vatican apartment, various mafia members and allies converged on Bergoglio’s candidacy,” Meloni writes. “‘The cardinals linked to the Sankt Gallen group and others too concluded that Bergoglio was the candidate best suited to be the next pope,’ says a vaticanista. ‘They believed that, in a pastoral sense, he represented a change from the previous pontificate, and so they decided to support him in the election.’”
But the group couldn’t muster the votes for Bergoglio and Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. This had an embittering effect on members of the St Gallen Mafia, who chafed under Ratzinger’s talk of a “dictatorship of relativism,” according to Meloni.
“The night of Pope Benedict’s election, a Latin American cardinal ran into Silverstrini on the street close to St. Peter’s,” she writes. “He was a ‘defeated man,’ says the cardinal of Sliverstrini. The cardinal saw Silvestrini’s ‘dull anger’ — saw his refusal to accept a papal election that marked the very negation of his life’s work. He saw Silvestrini’s stubborn notion that Ratzinger would only be a transitional pope. That evening, the cardinal saw that Silvestrini had declared ‘a form of war.’”
Much anonymous grousing and sniping during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI came from members of the St. Gallen Mafia. The controversies of his pontificate that they stoked appear to have broken his spirit and led to his resignation. Meloni writes that Pope Benedict XVI did not anticipate a liberal successor: “‘It is generally thought,’ says historian Henry Sire, ‘that Pope Benedict’s purpose in abdicating was to bring about the succession of Cardinal [Angelo] Scola.’”
But the St. Gallen Mafia and its friends blocked the conservative Scola. Meloni notes that the St. Gallen Maifa’s campaign to promote Bergoglio at the 2013 conclave was so widespread even CNN’s Chris Cuomo appeared to know about it. “Outside the conclave, some caught wind of the campaign to elect Bergoglio,” she writes. “CNN’s Chris Cuomo revealed on air that that he had been ‘offered up’ the name of Bergoglio as ‘the perfect compromise candidate.’”
“Benedict was caught off guard” by the election of Pope Francis, according to Meloni. He told an interviewer, “I did not think he was among the more likely candidates.”
She argues that all of the progressive priorities of the St. Gallen Mafia — from its enthusiasm for “synodality” to its dilution of traditional doctrine — foreshadowed the pontificate of Pope Francis. She details in particular the influence of the late Cardinal Martini on the pope’s thinking. Martini, who belonged to the Jesuit order as does Pope Francis, famously complained that the Church is “200 years behind” the times.
He longed for a religion adapted to post-Enlightenment liberalism. He has more or less gotten his wish. Meloni’s welcome focus on the St. Gallen Mafia — she brings together in one well-sourced book all that is known about it — will surely benefit and inform concerned Catholics, for whom the group’s “dream” is playing out as a nightmare.