ITALIAN journalists often make Dan Brown look like an amateur when it comes to writing about the Vatican. One has only to read some of the stories they are writing about the Pope's resignation and about the power struggle to elect the next Pope to see that.
A story published yesterday in a leading Italian daily claimed that a confidential report by three cardinals, detailing the existence of blackmail and a gay lobby in the Vatican, was a major factor in Pope Benedict's decision to resign.
The conclave, of course, has long lent itself to creative writing because it involves drama, history, power struggles (spiritual and less spiritual ones), perhaps blackmail, as well as the spiritual realities.
At the highest level, the election of a Pope is a deeply spiritual event, a faith experience, not only for the 116 cardinals that will soon cast their votes, but also for the one-in-six of the world's population that are following it with varying degrees of interest.
But the conclave is also a very human reality, subject to all the frailties of human nature, including rivalries, lobbying and, yes, politicking. After all, the church is both a human and a divine reality. It is not governed by angels, as the African Cardinal Francis Arinze once said.
As happened around the 2005 conclave, so too today poison-pen dossiers are beginning to circulate aimed at eliminating, or weakening the chances of a particular candidate who is perceived as "papabile" (candidate to be pope).
These dossiers are sometimes delivered in hard copy, but more frequently transmitted in the form of verbal briefings – "insider information".
This information, given to journalists, can reveal hitherto unknown details about the health of a cardinal, or provide information about relations a cardinal may have with questionable characters in the political or financial world, and so on. Of course, many good news stories too are on offer that can boost a candidate's chances.
Yesterday, for example, the negative side emerged. The highest circulation Italian daily, 'La Repubblica', a left-wing paper, ran a front page story under the headline: 'Sex and career, blackmail in the Vatican, behind the resignation of Benedict XVI.'
It claimed that Pope Benedict finally decided to resign after reading an explosive confidential report given to him on December 17 last by the commission of three cardinals that he had set up to investigate the wider background to the Vatileaks scandal – Cardinals Julian Herranz, (Spain and Opus Dei), Salvatore De Giorgi (Italy) and Josef Tomko (Slovakia).
That claim by 'La Repubblica' had already appeared over a week ago in Italy's leading daily, 'Corriere della Sera', and the weekly magazine, 'Panorama', but yesterday's story was something else.
Said to be based on information gleaned from a source close to the three cardinals who wrote the confidential report, it was dynamite.
'La Repubblica' said the three cardinals – all over 80 – not only reported the presence of lobbies, linked to religious orders and geographical areas, but also the existence of "a transversal network linked to sexual orientation", in other words, "a gay lobby".
It said the three prelates told the Pope that the sixth and seventh commandments are being broken inside the Vatican, and that some cardinals are being blackmailed by laypeople employed there.
Their report provided names of the individuals involved. According to the Italian daily, Benedict XVI will pass on this report to his successor. The paper promised more revelations in a follow-up story.
Many are now asking: is 'La Repubblica's' story true or false? It's very difficult to say. The existence of a gay lobby and blackmail in the Vatican were reported in a book published in Italy some years ago, entitled, 'Gone With the Wind in the Vatican'.
Rumours of such things have also been floated in recent times. Some think that Pope Benedict may have been referring to these and other things when, on Ash Wednesday, he spoke about things "that disfigure the face of the church".
Certainly the College of Cardinals will be looking for clarity on such allegations when they discuss the situation in the church at their plenary meetings prior to the next conclave.
Several cardinals have already stated publicly that the next Pope will have to reform the Roman Curia.
The Vatican refused to comment on the 'La Repubblica' story, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the Vatican would not deny, confirm or comment on the contents of the cardinals' confidential report to the Pope.
Gerard O'Connell is an Irish journalist living in Rome who writes for 'La Stampa'