Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber

In 1990, when Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber, now 80, became the President of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy—the Vatican’s training school for diplomats—he made a point of making sure that his students took weekend parish calls. “You cannot just be a bureaucrat, or you have missed your true task,” he said recently, recalling those days. Good diplomats are “also good pastors.”

Reflecting on Cardinal Rauber’s 43 years of diplomatic work, in which he served as nuncio for eight different countries in Europe and Africa, his emphasis on the pastoral stands out. Before becoming President of the Academy, Cardinal Rauber spent eight years working as nuncio to Tunisia and Uganda. It was a difficult time in Uganda, filled with instability and civil war. Still, it remains Rauber’s favorite assignment. “You needed not to come with theories;” he recalled. “It was about the practical help.”


While serving as President of the Academy, Cardinal Rauber was asked to investigate the diocese of Chur, Switzerland. Bishop Wolfgang Haas had been appointed in 1990; within a year the people and the priests were chafing at his conservatism and controlling ways. Rauber remembers working days from 8am past midnight, listening to different parties, trying to find a solution. On one occasion he called the auxiliaries together to meet with the bishop. “And the auxiliaries stood up and said ‘Wolfgang, you gotta go! Otherwise there will be no peace in this diocese.'” Asked what he was thinking at the time, Rauber responded in interviews that he was thinking about “Healing. That wounds heal.... And if it does not work, then the bishop must resign or be moved.”

His opposition to Haas won him the ire of head of the Secretariat Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Says Rauber, “I was not particularly supported by Rome at that time.”

From 1993 to 1998 Cardinal Rauber served as nuncio to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Rome often had trouble with the approach of the bishops of Switzerland. Rauber would speak on their behalf: “You have to understand the Swiss! They are democratic through and through, and they look at the Church in the same way. In Rome this was not always understood, because there is no country that would be comparable.”

Sometimes the challenge flowed the other way. So in 2009, after Pope Benedict XVI made his infamous statement while visiting Africa that condom usage could make the AIDS epidemic in Africa worse, the people of Belgium were particularly outraged. In 2004 Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels had disregarded the Church’s policy regarding condoms, urging people to use them and going so far as to say that if you had HIV and did not use a condom you were breaking the fifth commandment.

In 2009, the Belgian health minister said the Pope’s comments “could demolish years of prevention and education and endanger many human lives.” The Belgian Parliament took the further step of calling the Pope’s remarks “unacceptable” and encouraging the government to mount an official protest.

Cardinal Rauber was the nuncio in Belgium at the time, forced to relay the sentiments of the Belgian government to the Vatican and almost certainly involved in crafting the response. The Vatican’s statement criticized the government for reacting “on the basis of an isolated extract from an interview, separated from its context, and used by some groups with a clear intent to intimidate” and insisted that Pope Benedict had a right to state his opinion.

A year later, Cardinal Rauber would find his pastoral instincts at odds with the Pope. Cardinal Danneels had reached retirement age; as per standard process, Cardinal Rauber had solicited advice, vetted candidates and then offered the Vatican a list of three names, at the top of which was Bishop Jozef de Kesel, an auxiliary in the diocese. But Pope Benedict not only didn’t pick Kesel, he disregarded the list entirely, choosing someone who Rauber felt was entirely unsuitable for the job.

So strongly did Rauber feel about this decision that a year later, in retirement, he took the extraordinary step of doing an interview with Italian periodical El Regno, in which he revealed not only that Pope Benedict had ignored the standard process in this case—a decision that he was concerned “would displease many, including the King of Belgium”—but that he and the pope had something of a long standing history. When the pope had been in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, four times he had reported Cardinal Rauber to the Secretariat of State for speaking in public in a critical way about celibacy and about some bishops.

Cardinal Rauber chose as his episcopal motto Caritas Christi Urget Nos—“The Love of Christ Urges Us On.” He once described his diplomatic approach as “more smiles than index finger.” That clearly did not always win him friends. But in the words of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, bishop of Rauber’s home diocese of Mainz, he showed an “incorruptibility and independence of judgment, candor and sincerity in dealing with each and modesty and humility in appearance.”  He was, says Lehmann, “a selfless diplomat in service to the Church. One may certainly see this as a somewhat belated recognition.”

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