Vatican feuds, fiefdoms, betrayals await next pope
VATICAN CITY (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 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 the faithful say at Mass since missal 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 itself to the 21st century.
“There needs to be more coordination 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 centers 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 out 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 widely inside the Curia and out and delivered their final report in December. Its contents are sealed, though speculation is rife 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 most closely 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 more or less 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 simply “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.”
The Vatican spokesman, the 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.
“Differences and diversity of opinion are part of the normal dynamic of any institution or community,” Lombardi said. He said the way the Vatican’s governance problems are often described “do not correspond to reality.”
Rachel Zoll in New York and George Jahn in Vienna contributed.
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