Papal politics paralyze Vatican
Machiavellian machinations lead to scandal, exposing corruption at church’s highest level
Faithful gather to listen to pope Benedict XVI's Angelus prayer in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on Feb. 17. Scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church have some senior church officials insisting that the next pope must be able to manage the Vatican’s unruly bureaucracy. (GREGORIO BORGIA / AP)
IF EVIDENCE was ever needed that the next pope must urgently overhaul the powerful Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia, the scandal over Pope Benedict XVI’s private papers is Exhibit A.
The pope’s own butler stole sensitive internal letters to the pontiff and passed them off to a journalist, who then published them in a blockbuster book. The butler did it, he admitted himself, to expose the “evil and corruption” in the Vatican’s frescoed halls that he believed was hidden from Benedict by those who were supposed to serve him.
And if that original sin weren’t enough, the content of the leaks confirmed that the next pope has a very messy house to clean up. The letters and memos exposed petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church. The dirt ranged from the awarding of Vatican contracts to a plot, purportedly orchestrated by senior Vatican officials, to out a prominent Catholic newspaper editor as gay.
Ordinary Catholics might not think that dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace has any effect on their lives, but it does: The Curia makes decisions on everything from bishop appointments to church closings to marriage annulments and the disciplining of pedophile priests. Papal politics plays into the prayers said at mass since translations are decided by committee in Rome. Donations the faithful make each year for the pope are held by a Vatican bank whose lack of financial transparency has fueled bitter internal debate.
And so after 35 years under two “scholar” popes who paid scant attention to the internal governance of the Catholic Church, a chorus is growing that the next pontiff must have a solid track record managing a complicated bureaucracy. Cardinals who will vote in next month’s conclave are openly talking about the need for reform, particularly given the dysfunction exposed by the scandal.
“It has to be attended to,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George. With typical understatement, he called the leaks scandal “a novel event for us.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German who retired in 2010 as the head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office, said the Curia must adapt to the 21st century.
“There needs to be more co-ordination between the offices, more collegiality and communication,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “Often the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
Sandro Magister, the Vatican analyst who most closely follows the comings, goings and internecine feuds of Vatican officials, said the “disaster” of governance began unfolding in the 1980s, in the early years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
“John Paul II was completely disinterested in the Curia; his vision was completely directed to the outside,” Magister said in an interview. “He allowed a proliferation of feuds, small centres of power that fought among themselves with much ambition, careerism and betrayals.”
“This accumulated and ruined it for the next pope,” he said.
Benedict was well aware of the problems, having spent nearly a quarter-century in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But he never entered into the Vatican’s political fray as a cardinal — and as pope left it to his No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to do the job.
Bertone, though, became a lightning rod for division within the Curia. A canonist, he had no diplomatic experience coming into the job, and the main battle lines drawn in the Curia today come down to his loyalists and those still loyal to his predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Taken as a whole, the leaked documents seemed aimed at undermining Bertone.
To be fair, the Vatican under Benedict made great strides on some internal governance fronts: the pope insisted on greater financial transparency, and the Vatican passed a key European anti-money laundering test last summer. He insisted on a Vatican trial, open to journalists, for the butler who betrayed him. And as cardinal, after priestly sex abuse cases bounced for years among Vatican offices, the former Joseph Ratzinger took them over himself in 2001.
And very early on in his papacy, Benedict made it clear there was no place in the priesthood for men who sought power. In a May 2006 homily to newly ordained priests, Benedict warned them against “careerism, the attempt to ‘get ahead,’ to gain a position through the church, to make use of and not to serve.”
Some analysts speculate that the revelations from the leaks at the very least accelerated Benedict’s decision to resign. In early 2012, he appointed three trusted cardinals to investigate beyond the criminal case involving his butler. They interviewed inside the Curia and out and delivered their final report in December. Its contents are sealed, though speculation is that the cardinals minced no words in revealing the true nature of the Curia.
Benedict’s biographer, Peter Seewald, asked Benedict in August how badly the scandal had affected him. He replied that he was not falling into “desperation or world-weariness,” yet admitted the leaks scandal “is simply incomprehensible to me,” according to a recent article Seewald penned for the German magazine Focus.
The Holy See’s bureaucracy is organized as any government, though it resembles a medieval court — given that the pope is an absolute monarch, with full executive, legal and judicial powers.
There’s a legal office, an economic affairs office and an office dedicated to the world’s 400,000 priests. Three tribunals tend to ecclesiastical cases and a host of departments take up spiritual matters: making saints, keeping watch on doctrine and the newest office created by Benedict, spreading the faith.
John Paul’s 1988 apostolic constitution “Pastor Bonus” sets out the competencies of the various congregations and councils, and they function as independent fiefdoms, albeit in consultation with one another when the subject matter requires. In the end, though, the real power lies with two departments: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the secretariat of state, which can block virtually any initiative of another office.
“Who is influential isn’t so much dependent on what your office is or your title but whether you have access to the king, or in this case the pope,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican, a bible of sorts for understanding the Vatican Curia. The same could be said for any executive branch. But in the case of the Vatican, there’s a difference.
“Obama can fire anybody he wants from his cabinet,” Reese said. “When you make someone a bishop, you make him a bishop for life. When you make him a cardinal you make him a prince of the church. What do you do with a cardinal (who doesn’t work out)? He can’t go to K Street and get a job as a lobbyist.”
Though increasingly international, the Curia is also a very Italian creature, which affects its priorities, weaknesses and style of governance. “Genealogy is important, who begat whom,” noted one recently departed Vatican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to not antagonize former colleagues.
The typical Italian way of getting things done via personal stamps of approval, or “raccomandanzione,” guides introductions. The Italian way of persuasion, less overt power play than Machiavellian machinations, governs consensus-building and decision-making.
Italian commentator Massimo Franco recently concluded on the pages of Corriere della Sera that the Vatican bureaucracy today is “ungovernable.”
Bishop Charles Scicluna, who worked with the pope when he was at the doctrine office, said the problem with the Curia is that the power is so great — and so close by.
“I think sacred power, with all its trappings, is probably one of the most seductive things in the world if you don’t approach it with the right spirit,” he said in an interview.
Though it’s open to interpretation, Benedict’s final homily as pope could be read as a clear message to the cardinals who will choose his successor.
Two days after announcing he would resign, a weary Benedict told his flock gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for Ash Wednesday Mass to live their lives as Christians in order to show the true face of the church — a church, he said, which is often “defiled.”
“I think in particular about the attacks against the unity of the church, the divisions in the ecclesial body,” he said. He told those gathered that “moving beyond individualisms and rivalries is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent to it.”
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it was wrong to interpret the pope’s words as being directed at the Vatican Curia, saying the pope’s message was intended as a call for unity among all Christians, a priority of his as pontiff.
Cardinal George Pell: "... significant reforms are needed within the Vatican bureaucracy."
February 24, 2013 09:41 EST
Australia's Cardinal George Pell yesterday called on the Vatican press office to respond "in some constructive way" to reports of an internal investigation by three senior cardinals that told Pope Benedict XVI about an insidious web of blackmail, corruption and homosexual sex inside the Vatican. ...
According to La Repubblica, the report was "an exact map of the mischief and the bad fish" inside the Holy See, with the cardinals finding that one faction of Vatican officials, "united by sexual orientation", had been subject to "external influence" from laymen with whom they had links of a "worldly nature", which the paper said was a reference to blackmail.
It quoted a source close to the cardinals as saying that everything centred on "non-observance of the sixth and seventh commandments", which forbid adultery (included homosexual sex) and stealing. The report also mentioned numerous venues in and around Rome where clandestine encounters took place, including a sauna, a beauty parlour and a university residence.
Speaking just before he flew to Rome for the conclave that will elect Benedict's successor, Cardinal Pell, who read the full article, said: "I know nothing of the content of the report but whatever it contains it is clear that significant reforms are needed within the Vatican bureaucracy."
He praised Benedict for his "courage for commissioning such a report".
The cardinal said it remained to be seen how much of La Repubblica's report was accurate or whether it went beyond recycling material already on the public record. But it was important, he said, that the Vatican press office responded "as I'm sure it will given recent reforms".
In a piece for The Telegraph (Australian edition), Cardinal Pell spoke of what he will look for in the next pope:
"We want somebody with vision, able to plan for the future, who can take charge with the media and speak to the world, especially to those who half believe or don't believe at all'' Cardinal Pell told the Inner West Courier during his visit to St Vincent’s Catholic Primary School in Ashfield today.
Cardinal Pell said he was also looking for someone with "managerial” skills in the papal role.
"It's far and away from the most important task but it's one the tasks,'' he said.
For those who are putting money on the upcoming election (no, I'm not recommending it!), Cardinal Pell is getting 20-1 odds in some corners:
Australians have no idea how influential and how well-regarded Pell is at the top of the Catholic Church, and how long he has been thus.
Here is the first reason he could be pope. Among the 117 cardinals casting a vote there is a relatively small number, perhaps between 20 and 30, who are realistic possibilities, as the Italians say, papabili, or pope-able. Some are too old. The cardinals will not want another 78-year-old who might retire at 85 like Benedict XVI, perhaps while Benedict is still alive, giving Rome two ex-popes. Some are too young. If you elect a pope at 58 you are probably giving him the church for 30-odd years.
Some don't have the necessary languages. It would be difficult for a pope to run the Vatican if he couldn't speak Italian. Some are Americans - cardinals are reluctant to identify the papacy with the prevailing superpower. Some, though holy men, have said foolish things. Some have not run a big diocese, or not well. Some lack the intellectual firepower.
Pell, like a couple of dozen others, clears all these hurdles.
Read the entire piece, by Greg Sheridan, also in The Australian.
About the Author
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight
Cardinal Zen: Vatican Thwarted Pope’s Support of Chinese Church
Sunday, February 24, 2013, 11:37 PM
Benedict XVI’s efforts to support the Church in China were “wasted by others close to him,” says emeritus bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen:
This Pope has done things that for China that he has not done for any other country: to no other particular Church has he written a specific letter, no country has a special Commission dedicated to it of about 30 members, from the two most important dicasteries in the Holy See. We should be profoundly grateful to him for this.
But unfortunately I have to add that often he was a lonely voice in the wilderness. I have said and I repeat: his work was wasted by others close to him, who did not follow his line. I’m not here to judge consciences: it is likely that these his advisers thought that maybe he did not know enough about the situation, who he was unable to pursue the right strategy. In any case, these people have not implemented what Benedict XVI has established as the guidelines for the Church in China.
Saying “others” I mean people in the Vatican, but also those outside who, without the help of the Holy See, would not have done so much damage.
It is a very unpleasant situation, although it shows another aspect of the personality of Benedict XVI: he is absolutely firm in dealing with the truth, but is very respectful of the people around him, very—perhaps too—polite: gentle man, who never uses force.
This is not a weakness, it is the other side of one of his great merits, kindness, respect, mercy, the exact opposite of how he has often been depicted (the “conservative”, the “panzer”, “the ‘inquisitor”, etc.)
I too at times was impatient and I felt that he was overly condescending. In recent years I have continued to emphasize this point because in China the people are very simple and easily identify the Holy See with the Pope. Instead it must be said that much of what has been done in China, is not always attributable to the Holy Father. . . .
The Pope himself, faced with events in China, always referred to the “courage.” Instead, those around him, spoke of “compassion”, “understanding”, “patience”, exaggerating and ceding ground well beyond any acceptable limits, against the majority consensus of the Commission.