Anatomy of a papal scandal


Newspaper report, 'Vatican blasts pre-conclave report'By Renaissance standards the prelude to the papal election has been tranquil. But it has still been more boisterous than any in living memory. Almost every day the media have published stories of scandals, of gossip about the company cardinals keep, of discord within the Curia (the papal civil service) and of discreditable conduct by high officials that allegedly prompted Pope Benedict to resign.

The run of stories has led Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of State, to claim that the media are trying to influence the result of the election by bringing the Curia into disrepute.

The media coverage and the Vatican response to it deserve reflection.

Some things are obvious. The reporting has emphasised the lurid and thrived on speculation.

In looking for a master story within which to situate the choice of the next pope, many commentators have naturally retailed the current default story of the Catholic Church: its identification with sexual abuse. But they have drawn attention beyond the sexual abuse of children and its cover up to accusations made against cardinals and others who have been unfaithful to their commitment to live chaste lives. This touches on governance.

Like sex, scandals in governance attract an avid audience. So the master story of the papal election has become one of governance in disarray — of Vatican departments riven by ambition, scandal and acrimony. Even if the reports are not true, hearers begin to wonder who leaked them, and in whose interest.

Cardinal Bertone is certainly right to surmise that this form of media coverage will encourage belief among cardinals as well as others that a radical reform of church governance is necessary. But what kind of reform?

The Curia is a whipping boy for critics of different persuasions. It is variously regarded as being too conservative, too strong, too weak, too out of touch, too in touch with unrepresentative Catholics in local churches, too arrogant, too clerical, too Italian in composition, too powerful or too weak, too pious or too worldly. Critics united in the desire to reform the Curia are quickly divided when they discuss in detail what reform should look like.

The Catholic Church is distinctive in the weight it places on its local and international dimensions and the symbolic representation of each dimension by local bishops and the Bishop of Rome respectively. The responsibility of the Bishop of Rome is to confirm his brother bishops in unity of faith. This involves encouraging local churches to live faithfully and be self-reflective about identifying the Gospel with the values of their culture.

What the Pope's role of encouraging the unity of the local churches entails in concrete terms is the subject of lively discussion among Catholics. Many argue that the Catholic Church is too centralised in its governance, and that more autonomy should be given to local churches. Others demand stronger central governance to deal effectively, for example, with clerical sexual abuse.

These debates extend inevitably to the role of the Curia. It provides the eyes and hands that the Pope needs to understand how faith is embodied in the local churches and to encourage unity in faith. If centralised government and control are sought, the Curia will also be responsible for ensuring compliance.

In the work of any civil service, culture is all important. To work effectively the papal Curia must be characterised by trust and give priority to the service of the local churches, not to control. This requires broad experience, stored wisdom and a culture of public service. It is not evident that this professionalism will be automatically provided by prescribing national diversity or by short term postings.

If we are to judge by Australian experience the greater challenge is to build a political culture in which people are respected and consulted, and policies are not driven by economic, managerial and other ideological theories or by the passion to control. Failures like the Intervention and the cruel absurdity of asylum seeker policy betray that lack of respect. The imposition of the new liturgical translation may reflect a similar culture.

There is no magic bullet for the reform of governance. But in the case of the Catholic Church there does seem a mismatch between the structures of government that reflect a monarchic and aristocratic history and the culture required in a contemporary public service. The insistence that department heads must be cardinals, who must also be bishops, limits the pool of wisdom and skill on which can be drawn.

When civil servants are dignitaries it can also be difficult to build a culture of respect and service.

But ultimately any form of governance is known by its fruits. The fruits on display before the papal election have been shrivelled. They suggest that the new papacy will be a time for pruning, digging, fertilising and watering both the Catholic Church as a whole and in Rome in particular.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street and a policy officer for Jesuit Social Services.  

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict, resignation, Conclave, scandal, Vatican



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So, Cardinal Bertone says that the media are trying to influence the result of the election by bringing the Curia into disrepute. The Curia doesn't need any help from the media in that regard! Who may be involved in these activities will probably remain secret, but BXVI knows and will almost certainly bring the report to the attention of the Conclave. The consequent effect would be most interesting!

Bruce S | 27 February 2013  

Perhaps the Vatican Bank intrigues were not largely fiction after all.Perhaps when the divine is displaced by the human and the sacred by the profane, as happened precipitously with the "reforms" of Vat II ( curiously producing a clamour of protest - another protestant reformation)we could have expected the shambles that the current administration represents.

john frawley | 28 February 2013  

The Vatican increasingly sounds and looks like just another arm of the Mafia. Why anyone continues to believe anything that comes from the corrupt cesspit of despair, lies, deceit and dodgy dealing is beyond me. A very large hose is needed, along with far reaching reforms. Dump the army of gay mercenaries that guard the Pope, renounce the silly pretence that it is a nation-state and start thinking about what Jesus might have actually said, along with apologising for any pretence that God would be so simple as to appoint a mortal to be His Vicar General on Earth. Cut the crap, turf the tripe, ditch the dodgy and start again.

janice wallace | 28 February 2013  

Andrew, Thank you for your article, "Anatomy of a PayPal Scandal". I found it insightful, balanced and illuminating. As a simple Christian, I long for the days that the first Christians enjoyed in Antioch. I crave a simple Church, one that is centred on God's love for us, for Christ's great sacrifice for us and for His place as part of our Triumvirate God. Finally, I am just a simple Christian who is on a long journey towards enlightenment and true inderstanding. I love the Lord my God with all my Heart, Soul, Strength and mind. Sadly, I am very imperfect in the expression and execution of my love, but love Him I do. God bless you in your work Andrew. Cheers, Doug.

Douglas Smith | 28 February 2013  

Cardinal O'Brien went public with support for married clergy and women in the priesthood. Two days later we heard that he had a shadow on his past that caused his resignation; then we heard that he and the late Jimmy Saville were mates. Who needs Dan Brown conspiracies after all that?

Frank | 28 February 2013  

One can only pray that Cardinal Bertone is indeed right to surmise that "this form of media coverage this form of media coverage will encourage belief among cardinals as well as others that a radical reform of church governance is necessary". That would be very helpful. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is at work here to ensure the Cardinals recognise that the Church's governance is dysfunctional and failing to reflect Christ's teachings of love. Governance of the Church should follow Vatican II's commitment to subsidiarity, collegiality and collaboration with the people of God. The ordination of women, and rapid promotion of women in the hierarchy, is a necessary starting point and may be the 'silver bullet' that Andy seeks.

Peter Johnstone | 28 February 2013  

Thanks, Andrew, for an article that is moderate in tone and substance. Thanks also to Janice for her amusing and stimulating comment - cut the crap,turf the tripe, ditch the dodgy and start again. Reminds me of a homily given by a holy and wise priest a few days ago. He brought to mind the church today, one of great Cathedrals and churches, rich in property and finances, a heirarchy and clergy outfitted in great and colourful vestments congregating and processing among thousands, pontificating eloquently and lauding it over the people, and so on.Can you believe, he said, that this was founded upon fishermen?

George W | 28 February 2013  

One attitude toward the Curia, not mentioned here but more common than is supposed within the Church, is that it be abolished. Reform of Rome itself, where is that going to come from? Rome does whatever it can to maintain the power of Rome and the Pope’s resignation is part of that equation. There are Italian prelates tonight who will be making all sorts of manoeuvres they never imagined having to make. When I say Rome I don’t mean the Catholic Church, I mean the city of Rome and its ancient desire to keep control. Benedict has done a very amazing thing in Catholic terms, he has let go of control. (Readers of Rowan Williams who know about his theology of ‘letting go of control’ find this fascinating, given his close friendship with Benedict.) The resignation has thrown open an experience for the cardinals that is completely new to them: the expectation of Two Popes, something we haven’t seen since Avignon. No wonder the conclave politics is wild and unpredictable. The Scottish cardinal has gone down in flames and today the Australian cardinal, the one who greeted Benedict’s election as “a pair of safe hands” has come out saying Benedict is not a leader. This is conclave politics, but it also shows how many of these men are little more than fair weather friends. It also tells us that their belief in the unshakeable fact of the Curia is intact. Another term for it is what is called systemic paralysis.


"Shades" I anticipate your global scientific survey results calling for the abolition of the Curia. Meanwhile, that benchmark of reform the glorious Second Vatican Council solemnly decreed: "In exercising supreme, full, and immediate power in the universal Church, the Roman pontiff makes use of the departments of the Roman Curia which, therefore, perform their duties in his name and with his authority for the good of the churches and in the service of the sacred pastors." CHRISTUS DOMINUS, 9

Father John George | 28 February 2013  

“The reporting has emphasised the lurid and thrived on speculation.” When we have an organisation and governance that is not transparent, what else can one expect? “So the master story of the papal election has become one of governance in disarray — of Vatican departments riven by ambition, scandal and acrimony... this ...will encourage belief ... that a radical reform of church governance is necessary ..." That has been obvious for years. One of Hans Kung’s books about Vatican 2 reveals that behind all the pious words there was an incredible amount of politics, antagonisms and controlling behaviour between the Roman Curia seeking to maintain the status quo and others seeking renewal. “The responsibility of the Bishop of Rome is to confirm his brother bishops in unity of faith live faithfully and be self-reflective about identifying the Gospel with the values of their culture... If we are to judge by Australian experience the greater challenge is to build a political culture in which people are respected and consulted ... and policies are not driven by the passion to control.” I believe that the Church is too centralised in its governance. The Curia micromanages and should rather take an auditing role – stick to matters of faith and morals; let the local bishops handle the governance. The church's central government and public service has been singularly ineffective in dealing with matters like clerical sexual abuse, even though it has absolute control over the local bishops already, as witnessed by the forced resignation of Bishop Morris. “In the work of any civil service, culture is all important.” A culture of public service; a desire to serve is what Jesus preached, but instead we see “dignitaries” who demonstrate through pomp, ceremony, clothing and accoutrements their desire to be an elite; to rule and control, e.g., by the imposition of the new liturgical translation. If it were a secular public service, it would have been restructured years ago to remove dysfunctional elements and improve its operation.

Frank S | 28 February 2013  

Really, Frank S, Hans Kung on the Curia, would carry the erudite equanimity of Bin Ladin on the subject of the White House. Granted coffee and apple strudel with Pope Benedict in 2005, much more would be required to heal his yet obvious galling lacerations. [Recall the Vatican demoted Kung as a Cathoic Theologian, Christmas 1979.] Kung is still in heavy Fatwa mode to expect a nuanced and balanced appraisal of the curia.

Father John George | 01 March 2013  

Andy, thank you. Marie.

Marie O'Connor sgs | 04 March 2013  

JOHN GEORGE, well haven't you just proven my point? There was a lot of rivalry between members of the Curia and theologians like Hans Kung. He was certainly not alone. He was an advisor at Vatican 2, so one cannot simply discredit him because the Curia later succeeded in withdrawing his teaching position as a Catholic theologian at his university; he remained as a Professor there anyway. The Curia issued many fatwas against theologians it did not agree with circa Vatican 2. Kung was ahead of his time in promoting ecumenism and that was their problem. The fact that the Curia succeeded does not make it right; just that the individuals in power got their way. The Holy Spirit had nothing to do with it as far as I can see. The Curia's obsession with having total control is just another example of the church's failings; along with the apparent desire to roll-back Vatican 2; and the arrogant belief that the Holy Spirit acts only through the hierarchy and that lay Catholics just need to pray, pay and obey. That sort of thing got us into this mess with clerical sexual abuse in the first place, and attitudes must change.

Frank S | 06 March 2013  

Frank S far be it from me to "discredit Kung, he has ably done that himself. Your fidelity to Vatican 2 must transcend win/lose issue of Kung re Curia. The curia is no roll back on Vatican 2 which in fact endorsed the status and authority of the curia. All despite young kung's frenetic mission 'in situ' to update the Fathers on his ideas! Vat2 still persisted:

In exercising supreme, full, and immediate power in the universal Church, the Roman pontiff makes use of the departments of the Roman Curia which, therefore, perform their duties in his name and with his authority for the good of the churches and in the service of the sacred pastors.

Father John George | 08 March 2013  

Well, John George, no doubt you will also say without evidence that Congar and Rahner also discredited themselves? To quote: “At the beginning of the meeting Cardinal Ottaviani said that, to speed the work up, the experts will speak only if they are asked a question. At my side, Rahner was champing at the bit, and said to me 'what are we doing here ...?'" [3/6/1964] Yves Congar from "True and False Reform" About Cardinal Ottaviani: “Cardinal Ottaviani was (Secretary of the Holy Office in the Roman Curia 1959-1966). He, Cardinal Bacci, and a group of Roman theologians opposed many of the changes brought about by (Vatican 2)...” Congar: “ a French Dominican ... was the most important ecclesiologist in modern times. His writings and his active participation in Vatican II had an immense influence upon the council documents.” Or what about Karl Rahner, SJ (1904–1984): “One of the most important theologians of the 20th century…” from: Or John Ryan, a “mere” Australian priest like yourself by comparison, who can say, from: “At last after many wasted years of trying to find and eradicate the problems that have made their way into the system which is "Holy Mother Church" one can presume a certain level of acceptance in claiming that the problem is the system with which the Church is clothed… “As we pray for the incoming Pope, let us pray for a man who can appreciate the role of the "myth busters" and sponsor them onto the magisterial stage. Here is the challenge before the Church today and it is a daunting one because the dysfunctional myths have infiltrated the very governing structures that control us and they are being protected with political power that far outweighs their inner authority… “There are leaders who have an intellectual understanding of this problem but there are very few indeed who have what we might call insight into it. In other words very few whose conversion has progressed far enough below their ears to give them the necessary freedom to lead us out of this enslaving Egypt… “…the power mongers who in their learning claim to know far more than it is decent for anyone to know in the world we are discussing here. When I hear our own Cardinal Pell lobbying for Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan and clearly looking for someone who can pull the "dissidents" into line I shudder because while seeing where he is coming from, I think this is the very opposite direction for us to look.” I have no problem following Vatican 2. The problem is the obvious rivalry between curial cardinals who John Ryan recognises as the powerbrokers and other cardinals, some of whom recognise the wreckage that is the Church today and may want to bring about systemic change to rebuild the Church into something reminiscent of what Christ actually taught.

Frank S | 12 March 2013  

Frank S! Rahner well discredited himself with his trivial 4000 letters to highly acclaimed academic Luise Rinser] The 'frenetic output',noted by NCR and The Tablet]

Father John George | 14 March 2013  

JOHN GEORGE, apart from the fact it was apparently 2,200 rather than 4,000 that was still a lot of letters. And apart from the fact that it remained a "chaste" relationship - he did not break his vow of celibacy - all it proves is what I repeatedly hear from Catholics, that priests should be allowed to marry. And yet it is a red herring to suggest that just because he had an intense though chaste relationship with a woman, this somehow discredits everything that he wrote. In fact it reassures me that he was capable of understanding the lives of people a little better than probably the majority of the celibate males in their curial ivory tower in the Vatican.

Frank S | 24 March 2013  

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