The St Gallen ‘Mafia’ and the riddles of Francis’ Pontificate

The St Gallen ‘Mafia’ Is the ‘Skeleton Key’ Helping to Unlock Many Riddles of Francis’ Pontificate, Says Author

By Edward Pentin

Although the “St Gallen Mafia” is well known to most who follow the papacy and the Vatican, the vast majority of Catholics are unlikely to have ever heard of it.

And yet this group’s influence on the direction of the Church and all of the current and recent upheavals of this pontificate cannot be overestimated.

Founded in the mid-1990s, the clandestine group of high-ranking churchmen gathered in the Swiss city of St Gallen to oppose a Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger papacy.

Hosted by St Gallen’s then-bishop, Ivo Fürer, its members included Cardinals José da Cruz Policarpo, then Patriarch of Lisbon, Carlo Maria Martini, Godfried Danneels, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Achille Silvestrini, Lubomyr Husar, Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann.

Their efforts at the 2005 conclave to install a heterodox, progressive candidate failed, thanks in large part to strong resistance led by Cardinal Joachim Meisner.

The group, which Cardinal Danneels jokingly referred to as a “mafia,” then appeared to cease meeting from 2006 but its influence lived on in the form of a looser network that paved the way for Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ascendance to the Chair of St Peter less than seven years later.

Now Julia Meloni has produced a compelling, well-researched and vital book describing exactly how this “mafia” came to influence the leadership of the Church, precipitating much of the prevailing structural, spiritual, and moral destruction of the past nine years of Francis’ pontificate.

Well-written in a captivating style, The St. Gallen Mafia: Exposing the Secret Reformist Group Within the Church (TAN 2021) is required reading for anyone with an interest in today’s Church, for those concerned about the direction her leaders are taking her, and to future historians wishing to examine this tumultuous period in the Church’s history.

In this Dec. 29 interview, Meloni explains more about the book: how the aims of the secretive group mirror the goals of Francis’ pontificate almost to the letter, and how the association’s members most likely occasioned Benedict XVI’s resignation in 2013.

Meloni also shows how the spectre of one of the group’s key figures, the late Italian Jesuit Cardinal Martini, continues to live on in the Church’s leadership today. “Like a skeleton key,” Meloni says, “this group helps unlock many of the riddles of this pontificate.”


What motivated you to write the book?

I wanted to know the backstory of this pontificate. How did we get to the election of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, and beyond? Over and over, my search led me to the shadowy group known as the St. Gallen mafia. Like a skeleton key, this group helps unlock many of the riddles of this pontificate.


Briefly, what were the fundamental goals of the St Gallen Mafia, how did it emerge?

The St. Gallen mafia’s longtime leader was a liberal Italian Jesuit: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. In the early 1990s, the media identified him as a potential successor to Pope John Paul II. A few years later, Cardinal Martini began gathering the St. Gallen group around himself.

Usually, these high-ranking churchmen annually met at or near Sankt Gallen, Switzerland. We know, from the authorized biography of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, that their agenda was liberal and that they discussed topics such as homosexuality, Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and the ordination of married men and deaconesses.


The group was very active in 2005 but by 2013 it had all but seemingly disbanded. How was it therefore able to get Cardinal Bergoglio elected?

My book actually questions the notion, spread by Cardinal Danneels’s biographers, that the group completely stopped meeting shortly after Benedict XVI’s 2005 election. Multiple sources speak of an April 2012 meeting in Switzerland that Cardinal Martini attended with some bishop friends. That same year, as my colleague Maike Hickson pointed out to me, the mafia’s Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke of a “southerly wind” rising up. Later, others would understand this as a reference to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

So there are eerie signs of activity from this supposedly defunct circle the year before Benedict XVI abdicated–the year before the mafia’s Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor helped lead the campaign to elect Cardinal Bergoglio at the 2013 conclave.


You refer to an “invisible hand” that essentially plotted against Benedict XVI. How much was the St Gallen group responsible for his resignation do you think? Were they perhaps nudging and cajoling him to resign, possibly without him even knowing it? 

Yes, I think this idea of nudging Benedict to resign, without making him feel forced or unduly influenced, is what most likely took place. Personally, I believe Benedict when he says, in Last Testament with Peter Seewald, that he genuinely felt that his abdication was “not a case of retreating under pressure.” I believe him when he says that had anyone attempted to blackmail him, he “would not have gone, since you are not permitted to leave because you’re under pressure.” According to Benedict, the situation had, instead, “a mood of peace”–a “mood in which one really could confidently pass the reins over to the next person.” Here Benedict appears to be referring to what Henry Sire describes as the generally accepted theory that the pontiff resigned in order to pave the way for Cardinal Angelo Scola to be elected pope.

Which leads me to ask: Why, according to Sandro Magister, was Cardinal Martini telling a confidante in early 2012 that he hoped Benedict would resign “soon” and that the ensuing conclave might elect Cardinal Scola? Was Cardinal Martini himself planting or cementing the idea in Benedict’s mind that it would be wise to resign because Cardinal Scola would likely become pope? Is this what Cardinal Martini said when, according to his own confessor, he told Benedict it was time to resign in June 2012?

Ultimately, it’s hard not to feel that Cardinal Martini took advantage of Benedict’s trusting nature to encourage the pope’s abdication. What Benedict didn’t know, as he himself says in Last Testament, was that Cardinal Bergoglio still had a chance at the papacy. Benedict seems not to have had any idea that the mafia still had its eye on Cardinal Bergoglio as Benedict’s replacement.


Did you discover any possible St Gallen mafia links to secretive groups such as the Freemasons?

Because my book is an ideological history of the group based primarily on documented, publicly available evidence, I bracketed the topic of Freemasonry as something outside of the scope of my project. But it’s an intriguing question, so I hope one day another researcher will delve into it.


Your research clearly shows similarities between ideological approach of the St Gallen Mafia (anti-tradition, modernist and opposed to a “rigid” worldview as St Gallen member Cardinal Kasper said in 1967) and Francis’ pontificate. To what extent do you think it has been behind, say, Amoris Laetitia, synodality, women deacon commissions and this “revolutionary” pontificate in general? What has been its essential influence?

Early on, Vatican expert Sandro Magister pointed out that we could decode and predict the priorities of Pope Francis’s pontificate using Cardinal Martini’s “dream” speech at a 1999 synod. As my book points out, there’s a later interview with Eugenio Scalfari in which Martini named his top priorities in order. First came the issue of the divorced–which became the topic of Pope Francis’s family synods. Third came the issue of priestly celibacy–which became a major issue of debate at the Amazon synod. This pontificate, in other words, seems to be so scripted that even the order of Martini’s priorities largely maps onto the order of Pope Francis’s priorities. The new synod on synodality, meanwhile, aims to enshrine the most fundamental, revolutionary part of Martini’s dream: synodality.


How much does the group remain in force today, perhaps as a loosely organised entity and who might its members be? Is its future uncertain because its members are dying out?

I haven’t seen any Vatican specialists report that some form of the St. Gallen mafia is actively meeting these days. Maybe the group has secretly mutated and future research will reveal who the new members are. Or maybe the mafia really is dying out as its members pass away. Ultimately, what concerns me is that the group’s ideas have been mainstreamed by the Francis pontificate, meaning that the circle’s influence will live on. Now, it’s not necessary for a churchman to set foot in Sankt Gallen to be a conscious or unconscious heir of the Gallen group’s ideology. Now, for instance, a mafia-style understanding of “synodality” circulates in the Church as naturally as the air we breathe.


Why do you think the press, even Catholic media, seem reluctant to acknowledge the group? Why is there this apparent unwillingness to face the truth of what it stood for and what it did? Is it seen as too much of a conspiracy theory to be believed?

Ultimately, I think the real fear is that discussing the mafia will open a Pandora’s box, perhaps leading to doubts about the validity of Benedict’s abdication or Pope Francis’s election. My book, however, tries to demonstrate that we can talk responsibly about the mafia, without sensationalism or baseless speculation, using primarily publicly available evidence. Ultimately,  I look at the issue this way: why did Cardinal Danneels confess that he was part of an anti-Benedict “mafia”? Why did Cardinal Martini give us multiple blueprints of his revolutionary program? These men had a need to boast of their plots in some way, as if daring us to stop them. We can ignore this, pretending it doesn’t exist–or we can do the detective work to understand what these men wanted for the Church. If we’re on a train of revolution, it helps to know how the motion started and where we’re potentially headed.


What are your plans now — will you write a sequel? Do you have any other books in the works?

While I don’t currently have plans for any future books, I’m open to writing another one someday. Either way, I’ll be carefully watching the rest of this pontificate to see how its endgame plays out.