He retired as Archbishop of Bologna in 2003. In June of 2008, he will be eighty and therefore ineligible to vote in conclave. All the same, Giacomo Cardinal Biffi is exerting tremendous influence — if only moral influence — in his retirement. The pulpit and the pen are still open to him, even if his former offices have passed to others.
Regarding his activities in the pulpit, readers may recall the Lenten retreat he preached to the Holy Father and leaders of the Roman Curia. The remarks he made about the Antichrist caught the fascination of the press, Catholic and secular.1 Soon after that retreat — because papal retreat masters are considered more papabile — Cardinal Biffi’s papal odds went up in gambling houses.
As for the pen, the Cardinal is about to come out with a new book, one that — judging from Sandro Magister’s sneak preview — promises to be a blockbuster. On October 30, his 640-page autobiography, Memorie e Digressioni di un Italiano Cardinale (Memories and Digressions of an Italian Cardinal), will be in Italian bookstores.
We have come to expect bombshells from the Cardinal. Besides his Lenten remarks about the Antichrist, Giacomo Biffi is known to be an outspoken opponent of the dilution of Europe’s Christian identity, Islamification through immigration, and Freemasonry. He once said “Europe will become Christian again or it will become Moslem,” a statement at variance with the notions that a merely secular Europe is desirable or even possible.
Despite his opposition to the Islamification of Europe, during the harshest weeks of winter, Cardinal Biffi once sheltered in his Church a group of homeless people from the Maghreb. A watchdog for the faithful and an opponent of foreign invasion, the Cardinal is a priestly-hearted and merciful shepherd all the same. His concern for the “little ones” — as he frequently refers to those weak in the faith and therefore easily scandalized — bespeaks the tender devotion of a kind spiritual father, a pastoral sensitivity redolent of the Good Shepherd Himself.
Perhaps it is that pastoral combination of mercy and commitment to truth which gives the Cardinal’s strong critique of ecclesial novelties a dignified and self-posessed grace and charm.
The New Shibboleths
Let us savor some of the Cardinal’s correctives, beginning with his critique of the slogans of “aggiornamento” (my emphasis throughout):
“ ‘We must look more at what unites us than at what divides.’ This statement, too — which today is often repeated and greatly appreciated, almost as the golden rule of ‘dialogue’ — comes to us from the era of John XXIII, and communicates to us its atmosphere.
“This is a practical principle of evident good sense, which should be kept in mind in situations of simple coexistence and for decisions on minor everyday matters.
“But it becomes absurd and disastrous in its consequences if it is applied in the great issues of life, and especially in religious matters.
“It is fitting, for example, that this aphorism should be used to preserve cordial relations in a shared dwelling, or rapid efficiency in a government office.
“But woe to us if we let this inspire us in our evangelical testimony before the world, in our ecumenical efforts, in discussions with non-believers. In virtue of this principle, Christ could become the first and most illustrious victim of dialogue with the non-Christian religions. The Lord Jesus said of himself, in one of his remarks that we are inclined to censure: ‘I have come to bring division’ (Luke 12:51).
“In the questions that count, the rule can be none other than this: we must look above all at what is decisive, essential, true, whether it divides us or not.”
Without lessening his firmness of tone against novelty, the eminent critic does not dismiss in the phrase what is true. The old theology professor has the capacity for making distinctions, as well as the good sense to recognize an unacceptable compromise for what it is. For Biffi, pragmatism in pursuit of peace is no solution to the deeper problems of the Church or civil society.
On to another aphorism:“‘Distinction must be made between error and the person in error.” This is another maxim that belongs to the moral legacy of John XXIII, and this, too, influenced Catholicism after him. …
“But reflecting on this statement, I cannot forget that the historical wisdom of the Church has never reduced the condemnation of error to a pure and ineffectual abstraction. …
“Jesus gave precise instructions to the heads of the Church in this regard: he who causes scandal through his behavior and doctrine, and will not be persuaded by personal admonition or the more solemn rebuke of the Church, ‘let him be to you as a pagan and a publican’ (cf. Matthew 18:17); thus foreseeing and prescribing the penalty of excommunication.
The “Mercy of Truth”
Too many Catholics have forgotten the truth of such Scriptural utterances as these: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). “By mercy and truth iniquity is redeemed: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (Prov. 16:6). We have been overrun with a false cult of mercy — mercy divorced from justice, mercy divorced from truth. The Cardinal does not approve of exalting mercy at the expense of the other virtues:
“John XXIII yearned for a Council that would achieve the renewal of the Church not through condemnations, but using the ‘medicine of mercy.’ By abstaining from reproving error, the Council would by this very means avoid formulating definite teachings that would be binding for all. And in fact, it held consistently to this initial direction.
“But there was the danger of forgetting that the first and irreplaceable form of ‘mercy’ for wayward humanity is, according to the clear teaching of Revelation, the ‘mercy of truth’; a mercy that cannot be exercised without the explicit, firm, steadfast condemnation of any distortion or alteration of the ‘deposit’ of faith that must be safeguarded.
“Some might even have recklessly supposed that the redemption of the children of Adam depended more on our powers of flattery and persuasion than on the soteriological strategy preordained by the Father before all ages, entirely centered on the Paschal event and its proclamation; a proclamation ‘without persuasive discourses of human wisdom’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4). In the post-conciliar period, this was not merely a danger.
Criticism of Ecclesial Mea Culpas
One of the distortions of modern theology is to portray the Church herself as a sinner. For example, there is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s depiction of the Church as Casta Meretrix — the “chaste harlot.” (Note: Saint Ambrose used this term with a very precise meaning, as explained in another book by Cardinal Biffi. Read “Is the Church a Harlot?” for an explanation of how Saint Ambrose uses the term differently than progressivist theologians.) While not all contemporary efforts at apologizing for the supposed wrongs of Church history are so bad, many modern theological and pastoral initiatives give the faithful, as well as non-Catholics, the impression that the Church acknowledges that she herself is a sinner.
The Cardinal does not like this one bit, and he told this to Pope John Paul II over lunch one day:
“At table, the Holy Father said to me at one point: ‘Did you see that we have changed that statement in Tertio millennio adveniente?’ The draft, which had been sent to the cardinals before publication, contained this expression: ‘The Church acknowledges as her own the sins of her children’; an expression that — as I had stated with respectful frankness — could not be set forward. In the definitive text, the idea had been changed as follows: ‘The Church always acknowledges as her own her sinful children.’ At that moment, the pope took care to remind me of this, knowing that it must have pleased me.
“I replied by expressing my gratitude and manifesting my complete satisfaction with the theological formulation. But I also felt prompted to add a reservation of a pastoral nature: the unheard-of initiative of asking pardon for the errors and inconsistencies of past centuries would, in my view, scandalize the ‘little ones,’ those most favored by Jesus (cf. Matthew 11:25): because the faithful, who do not know how to make many theological distinctions, would see these self-accusations as a threat against their serene adhesion to the ecclesial mystery, which (as all the professions of faith tell us) is essentially a mystery of sanctity.
“And these were the very words of the pope’s reply: ‘Yes, that is true. That will require some thought.’ Unfortunately, he did not reflect on it sufficiently.”
Again, the theologian who is also a shepherd, shows concern both for orthodoxy and the interior peace of the “little ones.”
His Message to the Current Pope
Jesus is the Unique Savior, Religions Are Not Equal
Also revealed in the book is the speech that Cardinal Biffi made in conclave. This was his message to the future pope, as yet unknown to the cardinals because not yet elected, but in the room nonetheless. Two points merit our attention:
“A few days ago, I saw on television an elderly, devout religious sister who responded to the interviewer this way: ‘This pope, who has died, was great above all because he taught us that all religions are equal’. I don’t know whether John Paul II would have been very pleased by this sort of elegy.”
Subtle, but the point is made!
From that same speech: “That Jesus is the only necessary Savior of all is a truth that for over twenty centuries — beginning with Peter’s discourse after Pentecost — it was never felt necessary to restate. This truth is, so to speak, the minimum threshold of the faith; it is the primordial certitude; it is among believers the simple and most essential fact. In two thousand years this has never been brought into doubt, not even during the crisis of Arianism, and not even during the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. The fact of needing to issue a reminder of this in our time tells us the extent of the gravity of the current situation. And yet this document [Dominus Iesus], which recalls the most basic, most simple, most essential certitude, has been called into question. It has been contested at all levels: at all levels of pastoral action, of theological instruction, of the hierarchy.”
Hollywood may have its Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Bologna has something better: “Biffi the Bane of Ecclesial Novelties.” May the children of the Church take his message to heart — especially those with the pastoral charge.
1His Eminence is a scholar of the works of Vladimir Soloviev, the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher. It was Soloviev’s thought that inspired the Antichrist comments in the Lenten retreat. The Cardinal’s brief “Vladimir Sergeievich Soloviev: an unheeded prophet” is available online.