The Conspirator Behind the Election of Pope Francis

By Marcantonio Colonna Published on April 20, 2018

After five years of Francis’s pontificate, today’s Vatican resembles nothing less than a Dan Brown potboiler novel. It’s complete with conspiracies of eminent churchmen, sexual and financial scandals, and shady international banking interests.

Many hoped Pope Francis would relax the Church’s traditional doctrines and practices. But few have noticed a remark by one of the highest ranking and most powerful prelates in the western world. That prelate said Francis was elected by a liberal “mafia,” a group of progressive bishops and cardinals who had worked for years to bring about exactly this end.

A Liberal “Mafia”

An accusation from Church conservatives? No. The term was first used in a television interview in September 2015 by Cardinal Godfried Danneels. He’s the retired but still influential archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. Danneels said that he had for years been part of this group that had opposed Pope Benedict XVI throughout his reign. The group had worked to bring about a “much more modern” Catholic Church. To do that, they sought the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Francis was elected by a liberal “mafia,” a group of progressive bishops and cardinals.

“The St. Gallen group is sort of a posh name,” Danneels said, to appreciative laughs from a live audience. “But in reality we called ourselves and that group: ‘the mafia.’” The cardinal was speaking on a Belgian television program. In the brief video with Danneels’s remarks, a voice-over summarized the nature of the group that “met every year since 1996” in St. Gallen, Switzerland. It began at the invitation of the town’s bishop, Ivo Fürer, and the famous Italian Jesuit and academic, and archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.

“Together they organised the secret ‘resistance’ against Cardinal Ratzinger. … When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, the group already pushed the present pope [Francis] to the fore.”

The Secret Resistance to Benedict XVI

“Together they organised the secret ‘resistance’ against Cardinal Ratzinger. … When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, the group already pushed the present pope [Francis] to the fore.” This first attempt failed to put Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the throne. When faced with the election of Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, “Danneels could hardly hide his disappointment,” the narrator says.

Danneels gave the interview to promote his authorized biography. He added that the St. Gallen group had bishops and cardinals, “too many to name.” But all of them held the same general aim: a “liberal/progressivist” agenda, and opposition to Pope Benedict and the direction of moderate doctrinal conservatism. Danneels said, “Things were discussed very freely; no reports were made so that everyone could blow off steam.”

The program interviewed one of Danneels’s biographers, Jürgen Mettepenningen. (He co-authored the authorized biography with Karim Schelkens.) Mettepenningen said that by 2013, with the resignation of Benedict, “Cardinal Danneels has been one of those who were the pioneers of the choice of Pope Francis.”

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An Agenda to Change the Church

The authors of the Danneels biography listed the group’s concerns as “the situation of the Church,” the “primacy of the Pope,” “collegiality,” and “John Paul II’s succession.” English Vaticanist Edward Pentin writes that they “also discussed centralism in the Church, the function of bishops’ conferences, development of the priesthood, sexual morality, [and] the appointment of bishops.” A schema more or less identical to the one that was to come into public view at the two Synods on the Family convened by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015.

Danneels’s biography was of great public interest. He was one of the most powerful Catholic prelates in Europe. And one of the leading voices in the dominant liberal camp of the European episcopate. Nor was the cardinal joking. The existence and general purpose of the St. Gallen “mafia” was confirmed the next day by biographer Karim Schelkens in an interview with a local St. Gallen radio station.

Edward Pentin summarized what was known about the group. He wrote in the National Catholic Register:

The personalities and theological ideas of the members sometimes differed, but one thing united them: their dislike of the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. … The group wanted a drastic reform of the Church, much more modern and current, with Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, as its head. They got what they wanted.

Pentin added in a later article that although the St. Gallen group officially ceased meeting in 2006, its influence no doubt continued into 2013. “It’s safe to say that it helped form a network that paved the way for at least favoring Cardinal Bergoglio at the Conclave seven years later.”

They Tried to Stop Ratzinger’s Election

In 2015, the German author and Vatican expert Paul Badde confirmed this. He said that he had received “reliable information” that three days after the burial of pope John Paul II the group met again. Cardinals Martini, Lehmann, and Kasper from Germany, Bačkis from Lithuania, van Luyn from the Netherlands, Danneels from Brussels, and Murphy-O’Connor from London “met in the so-called Villa Nazareth in Rome, the home of Cardinal Silvestrini who was then no longer eligible to vote; they then discussed in secret a tactic of how to avoid the election of Joseph Ratzinger.”

Following the revelations by Danneels, a somewhat confused letter appeared from the diocese of St. Gallen. It partly retracted the claim that the group had influenced the resignation of Pope Benedict. The letter did confirm that the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013 “corresponded to the goal pursued in St. Gallen.” It noted that this information came from Cardinal Danneels’s biography. “This is confirmed by Bishop Ivo Fürer,” the letter continued, who said that his “joy at the choice of the Argentinian was never made a secret.”


Adapted by The Stream from The Dictator Pope (Regnery, Washington, D.C.: 2018). For more on Cardinal Danneels’ track record of promoting liberal theology, and his involvement in the catastrophic clerical sex abuse scandal in Belgium, see this piece by Stream Senior Editor John Zmirak.

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