A BRITISH diplomat, sent as Her Majesty’s representative to the Holy See, once characterised the Vatican as being like a palace, floating adrift from the rest of the world.
It is an image that has surfaced again this week with the extraordinary spectacle of the “Vatileaks” scandal, in which Pope Benedict XVI’s butler has been accused of passing stolen documents to the Italian press at the behest of senior clerics who want to discredit their rivals at the papal court.
Paolo Gabriele, a 46-year-old valet who has worked for Benedict since 2006, is being held in custody in “secure rooms” within the Vatican, the world’s smallest sovereign state at just 108 acres. As a Vatican citizen, one of only 600, he faces being dealt with by its own justice system rather than the courts in Rome, which surrounds this enclave.
Not that the international boundary that cuts across Saint Peter’s Square has deterred the Italian press from working itself up into a frenzy. Among the revelations in the private documents are details of church tax problems, its handling of child sex abuse cases, and the on-going negotiations between Benedict and ultra traditionalist “Lefebvrists”, currently excommunicated from the Church, but whom the Pope wants to readmit to his flock, apparently at any price.
More telling, though, is the picture the leaks paint of gossip and intrigue being the lingua franca of Benedict’s senior clerical courtiers, all plotting to gain an advantage over rivals behind their elderly boss’s back. If it sounds like murky machinations of the court of some medieval absolute monarch, then that is because it is precisely what it is, according to Robert Mickens, long-time Vatican-watcher and the Rome correspondent of the international Catholic weekly, the Tablet.
“The Roman curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, runs on a model that is hierarchical and designed to suit the needs of 600 years ago. Today it is simply anachronistic and detached from reality. It badly needs reform, but that is never going to happen when you have a system where all the senior figures are clerics, there are no women in prominent roles, and it is all about the pecking order and an absurd obsession with secrecy.”
The backdrop to the leaks, it has been alleged, is a behind-the-scenes battle royal for influence within the Vatican. In this reading of events, Gabriele is the “delivery boy” caught in the act of passing secrets on behalf of a clique of senior cardinals anxious to discredit two key figures close to Benedict.
The targets are said by anonymous sources briefing the Italian press to be the Pope’s trusted 56-year-old German private secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein (also known as “Gorgeous George” and “the Black Forest Adonis” on account of his good looks), and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the 77-year-old Vatican Secretary of State or Prime Minister. Ganswein has long been the subject of a whispering campaign because he is believed to exert too much control over his master, while Bertone’s authority, at a time when Benedict seems happy to delegate many day-to-day decisions to him, is resented by those who fear he will become the “king-maker” at the next conclave to elect a new pope. He certainly emerges in a very poor light from the leaks.
In 2009, it was widely reported that a delegation of cardinals – including the widely admired and papabile Christoph Schonborn of Vienna – had visited the Pope at his summer retreat at Castelgandolfo to demand Bertone’s dismissal. Benedict refused. “Bertone is seen as an obstacle to needed reforms,” says Mickens, “and he has also been accused of appointing his cronies, particularly members of his religious order, the Salesians, to plum posts in the Vatican, and making them cardinals as a way of consolidating his power.”
These charges of blocking reform are ironic because, when he was elected in 2005 as the 265th successor to Saint Peter, Benedict explicitly promised to update the curia. His experience of 25 years of working in it, as right-hand man to John Paul II, and especially of seeing it in operation during the twilight years of that papacy when the Polish pontiff was increasingly incapacitated, was thought at the time to have prompted Benedict’s enthusiasm for change. “He talked about transparency,” recalls Mickens, “but there has been no reform. And you have to ask transparent to whom? He doesn’t consult with bishops. He clearly feels the laity have no right to see anything. Presumably he means transparent to God.”
For a taste of how slowly the antiquated wheels of the Vatican bureaucracy turn, it is necessary only to apply for press accreditation to visit its territory. There are two separate offices that deal with requests – one for photographers and one for writers – but both have to be satisfied before referring the matter for a final decision to the Pope’s press spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit, whose training was in mathematics and theology.
Under John Paul, the press role was held by a layman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, albeit one who was part of the secretive “church within a church” Opus Dei organisation. Today, under Benedict, though, every department within the curia is headed by male celibate clerics, including the Council for the Laity and the Council for the Family. Where women are included, they tend to be nuns given the role of under secretaries, on the third tier of the management pyramid.
Dr Lavinia Byrne, a former nun who was disciplined by the Vatican in the 1990s for her writings on female ordination, believes that the absence of women in positions of authority at the papal court has profound consequences for its effectiveness and connection with the world beyond the Leonine Walls. “The culture of secrecy that so affronts people is reinforced by the fact that the Vatican is a boys’ club. In this day and age that is surely unhealthy. There are a few token women, but an institution that prizes itself as the elite of the Church is so male and so masculine in its outlook that it has ended up being out of touch and out of date.”
In a well-publicised case last year, Lesley Anne-Knight, a Briton who was one of the very few lay females to hold a senior position, was effectively frozen out by the curia as head of the Church’s global aid and relief agency, Caritas. After her departure, the organisation was put more firmly under the control of another Vatican body, Cor Unum, headed by a cardinal.
“The inner workings of the Vatican are certainly a very tight ship,” says the writer John Cornwell, who had extensive exposure to it in researching his books on the sudden death of Pope John Paul I and the reign of John Paul II. “The stereotype is that it is a place of great conservatism, which seemed pretty accurate to me, but also of great deviousness and plotting. That, I feel, is false. What others see conspiracies, I tend to regard as cock-ups.”
In his book A Thief in The Night, Cornwell judged groundless the headline-grabbing theories that John Paul I had been murdered by Vatican insiders to stop him exposing their wrong-doing. But he did describe the papal court as “a palace of gossipy eunuchs” and “a village of washerwomen – they get down in the river, wash clothes, punch them, dance on them, squeezing out all the old dirt”. It is another of those descriptions that could be applied to this latest crisis.
Pope Benedict this week took the unusual step of making a personal appeal to his employees to work on “in the spirit of sacrifice and in silence”. Clearly disturbed by the revelations about his butler, he tried to dampen speculation. “Suggestions have been multiplied, amplified by some media, which are totally gratuitous and which have gone well beyond fact,” he said. “They are offering an image of the Holy See which does not correspond to reality”.
The problem, though, is that the reality which outsiders experience when they have dealings with the Vatican is so very odd. It offers a context in which the wildest of stories can appear plausible.
And then to fuel the fires of those determined to suspect the worst, Benedict has appointed a member of Opus Dei to the commission of cardinals he has set up to look into the Vatileaks scandal. Anywhere else it would be regarded as a public relations gaffe for, in most people’s minds, Opus Dei is inextricably linked with Dan Brown’s lurid allegations in The Da Vinci Code.
“The curia is slowly but steadily imploding because it is so removed from the rest of the world,” concludes Robert Mickens. “This latest scandal is just another stage in that process.”
Cornwell, though, counsels caution before writing off this system of government. “The curious thing is that, although I can describe its failings, it continues to have an extraordinary ability to keep going. If you think about the damaging revelations that came out from the Vatican Bank in the 1980s, the system should never have survived. But it has.”