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Scola for Pope?

January 19, 2007

John Allen, Jr. can’t help himself. He’s having thoughts, however fleeting, of the next pope. No, he’s not sick of chronicling Pope Benedict XVI’s papal rendezvous, speculating on ecclesial subtext and interpreting doctrinal directives. And, thankfully, Allen tells us that Benedict is in fine health and is free of any temptations to resign. Nevertheless, Allen has noticed some papal potential in the great Cardinal Archbishop of Venice, Angelo Scola.

I will be honest here: during the 2005 conclave, I only thought two men stood any real chance of being elected pope: Camillo Cardinal Ruini and Angelo Cardinal Scola. Ruini was my initial and final prediction, with Scola taking over between those moments. With Scola’s international connections, nouvelle theologie thought-form and Venetian-to-Vatican Church trends, I truly thought he could have been the man to succeed John Paul II.

Of course, I was quite wrong. But perhaps I won’t be so short-sighted in the future. Here is a part of Allen’s latest column on Scola (the full text available here):

Traditionally, one element in the profile of a papabile, meaning a contender for the papacy, is travel. You look for a cardinal who has moved around the world a bit, and therefore has a sense of the global situation, not just his own particular corner. As with all such handicapping tips, this one is hardly infallible; Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice, for example, had taken just one trip outside Italy in his entire life prior to being elected as John Paul I in 1978. Nevertheless, when a cardinal starts building up frequent flyer miles, especially speaking in high profile forums on hot-button topics, it’s worth paying attention.

Thus we come to Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice and his visit this week to the United States, including a session at the United Nations, to discuss dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Scola, 65, a gregarious and highly erudite former university rector, was on the East Coast Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 16 and 17, to promote Oasis, a journal he launched in 2004 on inter-faith dialogue. Originally, it was a response to requests from Catholic bishops in Arab and other Islamic cultures for Christian literature in the local languages. (Oasis is published in four bilingual editions — English-Arabic, English-Urdu, French-Arabic, and Italian-Arabic.) Scola, however, wanted the journal to be more than a Reader’s Digest-style distillation of Christian texts; he wanted it to become a motor for dialogue in its own right.

In a nutshell, Scola’s thesis is that we’re living through a historically unprecedented “hybridization of cultures,” and religions can either be steamrolled by that process or reflect critically upon it. Last year, Scola presented the journal both at a session with the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization in Paris, as well as in Cairo, where participants met with the rector of the Al-Azhar University, one of the most authoritative institutions in the Islamic world.

On Tuesday, Scola took part in a conference at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., under the title “The primordial relationship between God and the human person in Catholicism and Islam,” which brought together 10 Catholic thinkers and 10 Muslim theologians. On Wednesday, Scola brought his act to the United Nations, with a panel discussion in the Dag Hammarskjöld Library featuring Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian scholar at George Washington University; Rabbi Israel Singer, Chairman of the Policy Council for the World Jewish Congress; and Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. Anderson is vice-president of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, which is affiliated with the Lateran University in Rome, where Scola once served as rector.

The irony of prominent religious leaders speaking at the United Nations, an institution often derided by critics as a citadel of secularism, did not escape notice. Singer expressed the wistful desire that the United Nations organize a “conclave” to select Scola as Secretary General, saying the cardinal has a track record of fostering dialogue — “something they’re trying to do here, mostly to little avail.”

The event was co-hosted by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, who often jokes that the United Nations is his “parish.” (In many ways, he’s not kidding. I ran into Migliore at a reception in a bar inside the General Assembly building; he told me in passing that two years ago, he had been called to that very room to deliver the last rites to a U.N. employee who had committed suicide. He also said he’s sometimes been asked to hear confessions in the hallways.)

In terms of Scola’s future, splashy events like his stop at the United Nations add to his reputation for gravitas. He’s associated with the international theological journal Communio, and once published a book-length interview with the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Scola’s specialty is theological anthropology, and like many intellectuals, he sometimes struggles to speak in simple declarative sentences. Consider this example, from my interview with him on Wednesday: “In order to make sense of an object, to ‘intentionalize‘ it, I have to step outside of myself and direct myself to ‘being,’ to something that calls me and asks something of me.” That aside, he has an impressive mind, and in pastoral settings he’s witty and approachable.

Scola comes out of the Communion and Liberation movement, founded in Italy in 1954 by Fr. Luigi Guissani. Today the controversies that once surrounded Communion and Liberation, perceived as a conservative alternative to other constituencies in the church, have largely ebbed, yet vestigial memories endure. I recall standing on a Roman rooftop during the days before the conclave, speaking with a senior figure from another prominent Italian movement when Scola’s name came up as a potential pope. This person’s response was near-apocalyptic: “We would be destroyed!” Whether that’s really the case is not the point — it speaks to antique perceptions that Scola’s past could make him a divisive figure. (The election of Joseph Ratzinger, however, should serve as a warning that perceptions of divisiveness do not necessarily drive behavior in conclaves).

Scola’s visit to the United Nations was co-sponsored by the Crossroads Cultural Center of New York, which is connected to the Communion and Liberation movement, and many cielini are part of Scola’s informal international network.

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