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     Jun 20, 2012

Vatican rumor-mill spins relentlessly
By Francesco Sisci

ROME - Shortly after Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005 and took the name of Benedict XVI, a very reputable Italian bimonthly, Limes, published an essay revealing the ballots cast for the new Pope. It was the first time since papal elections in a secret conclave were started some half a millennium ago that the result of a vote was made public.

It was a serious breach of secrecy and of a procedure established to choose the head of the Catholic Church in a way that was democratic and free of external interference. The conclave also serves to guarantee that past divisions would be forgotten and mended after the undisclosed consultation.

The leak and the alleged revelation that reaching a consensus about Ratzinger required strenuous effort, implied that some Catholics were very dissatisfied with the choice, to the point of


breaching a sacred vow of secrecy. Moreover, as only cardinals are admitted in a conclave, it indicated that at least one cardinal had broken a very strong pledge of confidentiality.

That essay might have been based on false information, but in the following years, the growing trickle of news, rumors, letters, and documents stamped and signed by the Pope's closest collaborators, culminating in the recent book Sua Santita - le carte segrete di Benedetto XVI by Gianluigi Nuzzi, casts a different light on the whole issue. The leaks, no matter how they are interpreted, were intended to show that Pope Benedict is unable to govern the Church, which is torn by ferocious infighting between the most senior cardinals. This in turn proves that there is deep-seated, unrelenting opposition to this Pope within the Church and, because of the nature of this news, the opposition comes from very close to the Pope himself.

None of the documents challenges Benedict's theological positions - it is almost as if his religious leadership is to remain undisputed - but all point to his faults in ruling the Holy See. In a way, the leaks draw a subtle line between religious and temporal powers of this strange little state (the tiniest in the world) with a huge organization (the largest unitary religion on Earth, with over one billion followers, and influence over billions more of other religious believers). In this way, they have already begun the election campaign for the new Pope.

If this is the case, the important issue for the next elections is to undermine Benedict's legacy, something not easy at the moment. He has chosen over 60 of the about 120 cardinals who could seat in the next conclave. Therefore Ratzinger has already set the direction for the choice of his successor. He could well be Italian since in contrast to past selections, Ratzinger has gone back to choosing many new cardinals from among the Italians. In fact, most revelations steer clear of the global issues engulfing the Church.

The problem of child molestation in America is described in the documents as a simple financial issue: all the money to be paid to the accusers to avert humiliating public trials. No account is given of the many tormenting social and ethical problems of the Church in America, such as the holy confession or the role of nuns. The very intricate problem of the Church in China, object of a complex theological letter by the Pope, becomes almost a vignette with Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen pressing the Secretary of State Tarciso Bertone on the choice of this or that bishop.

As with the scandal with the former head of the IOR (Istituto Opere Religiose, the Vatican Bank) Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, all revelations are about the growing ethereal divisions between Italy, the Italian or Italianized cardinals of the Curia who are struggling with one another, and the Holy See. The global mission of the Church is, in these leaks, a distant shadow. The accusations bombard Bertone, seemingly unable to govern the Curia, including alleged bribes and kickbacks about the gardens or even the electric appliances in the Vatican citadel. They detail the widespread opposition to the secretary of state, and the Pope's stubborn defense of his right-hand man.

The documents stress one point: the Holy See has become too Italian, strung in a web of petty politicking that has more to do with Italy's nasty and corrupt power politics and much less to do with the goals of the faith. The solution then should be, accordingly, to bring order back to the Curia and detach the Holy See from Italy. This is the profile of the mission of the new Pope, and this is in a nutshell what the revelations are about.

We don't know if this is true.

What is true is that Ratzinger, like his predecessor Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, is not running the Curia and is far removed from the Vatican's earthly affairs. However, Wojtyla had Angelo Sodano as his secretary of state, a very experienced diplomat who managed the Curia with an iron fist. Bertone conversely has little or no diplomatic background, and he is allegedly more at home with Italian politics than with global affairs and less efficient in managing his Curial colleagues.

Moreover, Wojtyla met all kinds of people all the time. Ratzinger is extremely reserved, shy, and more at ease with his books and a few close friends than with entertaining guests. This can't go on, the leaks suggest. Then the next Pope has to be able to have a hand in the administration; he must be able to get the Curia, and thus the Church, back in order.

The criticism may be true and reasonable. However, the way in which it has been expressed and made public "and the array of details about smear campaigns, corruption, intrigue, ungodly ambition, ties with the underworld, and sexual scandal" portray a church similar to that of the Borgias'. It was a time shortly before Martin Luther started his reformation movement, which broke apart Western Christianity. Then in these leaks, there is the smell (or stench, depending on the taste) of a schism.

In fact, besides the scandals, there is a great theological debate between different and deep undercurrents in the Church.

Presently, greater communication and greater integration has underscored the necessity of being more rooted in one's own specific reality. So, many Catholic communities want to elect their own bishops, feeling misrepresented by Rome's choices of Nuncios, the Pope's emissaries in the different countries who also help the Pope in the selection of local bishops. Many Nuncios feel wronged or worthless because once in Rome, the Pope or the secretary of state does not devote enough time and attention to conferring with them about local issues. In sum, the bond between Rome and the rest of the Church, the very essence of the unity and global influence of the Catholic faith, has become more tenuous, weaker. Then the spread of stories of Roman plots and conspiracies can do the rest by breaking the last source of unity in the Church: the central authority of the Pope.

Is someone in the Church posing a veiled threat: either you get your house in order or the Church will explode? Is someone preparing for a schism in Rome in any case? Is this just stupid chaos running out of control? Are foreign powers playing up the possibility of breaking up the Church, which has grown too powerful and invasive in a world dominated by superpowers?

These are some of questions spreading in Rome while the rumor mill keeps going.

But there are growing problems in the life of the Church. Americans, bringing in the largest financial contributions to the Church, complain that they are harangued by the Europeans for being "deviant", but American churches are full and European churches are empty. Common Catholic followers feel shunned and almost second-class followers as Rome tries to reach out to non-Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims and even atheists.

"The idea that reason will lead to faith, proposed so strongly by Ratzinger, is bold and most intriguing intellectually, but most Catholic people are not intellectuals and feel neglected and as if they are not smart enough to go to the mass. Yet these are most of the people who go to communion, who are the Church; the others simply don't," says Vatican expert Carlo Marroni.

It is almost a situation like in the evangelical story of the prodigal son. When the father kills a fat lamb for the returning child, the loyal children, the ones who stayed behind, feel wronged.

To top it all, as always in the history of Christianity, there are also deep theological issues tearing apart the Catholic body. Some theologians blame other Catholics for being somehow close to other positions of the Christian faith. "Christ will arrive at the end of time. That is, perfection is not of this world. This is what the Pope is defending and what some groups have qualms with", summarizes a theologian, explaining this was at the core of Rome's dispute against the Theology of Liberation, which swept Latin America in the 1970s bringing priests close to communist activists.

The issue has powerful consequences: then Christians should try to improve things, but have to know that they cannot change the world. The other side argues that Catholics should take active charge otherwise the Church ends up siding against political change and being conservative, an old accusation against Catholics in many parts of the world.

In all of this, the Pope has not intervened forcefully. He tries to reason and argue but always in very soft manner. He tries to keep everybody together and happy, but this may sometimes dangerously lead to everybody being unhappy. People close to this Pope promise he is extremely good-hearted and forgiving. When he was head of the Office of the Doctrine of the Faith, he always acted on direct orders of Pope Wojtyla, who, under a soft appearance, hid a steel conception of what Catholicism should be. Wojtyla might have wanted Ratzinger in that position for his culture but also for his good heart, which would help him in carrying out his difficult job with the piety necessary for the Catholic Church.

But Pope Ratzinger without Wojtyla's stern eye might now be too soft and perhaps too indecisive for the necessities of this Church, argue some priests in Rome.

Is this his problem? Or the problem of those who try to force his hand and prepare already for his demise? Or are the problems of the church and the world grown too complicated for Rome to handle them? Are some powerful priests, bishops or even cardinals pushing to break the church or to set it to a very different course?

None of these questions are clearly raised in Nuzzi's book or the other leaked stories, and none of the delicate theological issues surrounding the scandals are brought up. This of all the mysteries of this case seems the biggest. Are then the leaks so naive or so smart? This brings us back to beginning, to the alleged ballots cast for Ratzinger's election.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at fsisci@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Francesco Sisci.)

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