The Vatican's tragic farce


Pope Benedict wipes eyes with a tissueGovernance has emerged as a key issue in the pre-conclave debate largely because of press reports about shenanigans in the Catholic Church's central administration, the Roman Curia. It is said that the only on who could solve the problem would be JC with an MBA.

Whether the cardinals choose a charismatic leader like John Paul II or someone keen to turn attention away from himself like Benedict XVI, if the new pope is non-Italian he will probably choose an Italian secretary of state. Both John Paul and Benedict did this, as seems wise when the bishop of Rome is Pope, and also when Italians should be best able to handle the largely Italian-influenced Curia.

The secretary of state, the Vatican No. 2, controls not only the Curia but also the Vatican diplomatic corps. Vatican diplomats are sometimes regarded as central office spies but the best bring a valuable experience of the Church in many countries to the top.

The secretary of state is such an important role that one wonders whether there is a ticket in the papal election: a pope is chosen who agrees on who will be his No. 2. There are suspicions that this has happened in the past. It is excluded by canon law in the conclave itself but could occur in the pre-conclave meetings if the needed two-thirds majority reached an agreement there on who should be pope.

If the recent precedent is followed, this would mean that a non-Italian pope would have an Italian secretary of state.

What has not been noticed is that the internationalisation of the papacy over the past 35 years has been accompanied by an Italianisation of the Vatican media coverage, particularly in Benedict's reign.

Vatican coverage reads like Italian political stories with smear campaigns, back-biting, wild accusations and turf wars. Across the darkling plain there are reports of bitter contests in which it is difficult to distinguish the contestants and who comprise the factions because many switch sides.

They are like the Guelph and Ghibelline battles in which Dante participated and later described: probably he decried Celestine V stepping down as a betrayal because it opened the way for Boniface VIII who was a personal enemy. He called his great poem a Comedy and someone added the word Divine but a replay in the 21st century is more like a tragic farce.

Doubtless some media give the worst twist possible to events and from isolated cases can build up alleged networks: Masonic rings have been replaced by homosexual ones. But the Vatican Bank (IOR) has caused headaches for a long time and the stealing of 58 boxes of documents from the papal study is only the most prominent of the cases which raise serious concern about the Curia.

Moreover there is a suspicion that although curialists may be involved in prolonged battles they are willing to coalesce against those who are not curialists: Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, criticised both Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and his predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano, but Benedict called Schonborn to Rome to apologise to them together.

Isn't this a proof that non-Italian popes should not feel obliged to have an Italian No. 2?

Maybe, but Bertone and Sodano, both giant Piedmontese, are rather different. Sodano, a representative of the Vatican diplomatic corps and the traditional Curia, kept a tight control over documents — but not over his mouth when describing the reports of priestly sexual abuse as 'petty gossip'.

Bertone, with no diplomatic experience, was 'parachuted' into the Curia causing many resentments and, as No. 2, is held responsible for the amazing gaffes of Benedict's pontificate such reinstating the Lefebvrian bishop Richard Williamson without knowing he was a Holocaust denier. As a result Benedict, who has always recognised the links between Christians and Jews, was seen as an anti-Semite.

One of the main tasks of the secretariat of state is to prevent such croppers.

The Curia has had a bad reputation for centuries. Andrew Greeley used to say that curialists who don't engage in pastoral work were in danger of soul withering. But for decades after the Vatican Council curial members had a high morale, convinced they were doing an important job well. Because the last two popes ignored them there has been a drop in that self-esteem and this plays a part in the current disarray.

There were gaffes and scandals when there were Italian popes but there was not the spate of them as under Benedict. He did push for changes, as in the IOR or Vatican Bank, but that has been partly botched because the man Bertone appointed to guide it, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was removed for inadequacy.

Many cardinal-electors have said reports on curia disarray indicate the need for change, but for some this means more efficiency and tighter controls, whereas others want the pope to bring his fellow bishops into decision making. Somehow the institutional-administrative has to be linked to the charismatic.

Is there a curial party convinced the widespread criticism is exaggerated and that the change should be a return to its older status? Probably, but this is a chance also for those who envision more far-reaching structural changes.



Desmond O'Grady headshotDesmond O'Grady is an Australian author and journalist living in Rome.

Topic tags: Desmond O'Grady, Vatican, conclave, Benedict, pope



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Existing comments

JC wouldnt't need an MBA [Mickey Bouse Award???]

john frawley | 11 March 2013  

Bravo, Desmond, for lifting the veil on the political culture of the Curia! Far from being soap operatic it has all the hallmarks of grand opera, against which that mother of civil servants, Whitehall, demonstrates the kind of gold standard that the Vatican might learn a great deal from. Chief among these qualities should be inscrutability - hardly a Gospel value but one in mean supply given the plethora of Vatican scandals of recent months. Most evidently, the buffo repertoire of the Italians has this time so overstretched the mark that it has brought the Church not simply into disrepute but gross ridicule. While Sir Humphrey at least had the grace to pretend that his Prime Minister had won, the pre-conclave meetings showed quite a number of divas jostling for centre stage, each one with his own claque, positioning himself adroitly to gain maximum attention for his aria. The operatis personae usually include a fallen hero, like the Cardinal of Scotland (a Lucia di Lammermoor or perhaps now a Violetta Valery?), an exotic Madama Butterfly, a dashing Private Pinkerton or a jealous Otello. Notwithstanding, they're all Golden Girls, the lot of them! Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!

Michael Furtado | 13 March 2013  

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