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Vatican feuds, fiefdoms, betrayals await next pope

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2013 7:33 a.m. MST

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.

But 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."

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.

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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