Exhausted in the Vatican: The Final Battles of Pope Benedict XVI
Part 2: Losers in the Battle for Reform
The current scandal unfolded against this backdrop. The revelations about the secret Vatican documents -- dubbed "Vatileaks" by none other than papal spokesman Padre Federico Lombardi -- first emerged more than four months ago. They suggest a Vatican mired in corruption and character-assassination campaigns, a plot that seems hardly limited to a butler's alleged act of theft.
The central figure is Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, whom the pope instructed in July 2009 to clean up at the Vatican administration. The overzealous lawyer imposed cutbacks in various areas, including construction contracts, real estate and management of the Vatican Gardens. In a letter to Bertone, he wrote that he had turned a Vatican budget deficit of 7.8 million ($9.8 million) into a surplus of 34.5 million within a year by putting an end to old boys' networks that "always awarded contracts to the same companies" -- at double the prices customarily paid outside the Vatican. Viganò made himself unpopular with his fight against waste and abuse of office.
He was maneuvered out of his position after only 27 months and, since October, he has been the Vatican's ambassador to the United States in Washington, far away from the Vatican. He has perceived his transfer as a punishment. In a letter of protest to the pope, he painted a blunt picture of the Curia: "The realm is fragmented into many small feudal states, with everyone fighting against everyone else." The conditions, he wrote, are "disastrous" and, even worse, are "well-known" to the entire Curia.
The Vatileaks scandal has also brought to light the reasons behind the sacking of another senior official. Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, head of the Vatican bank until shortly before Pentecost, was apparently shown the door because he was trying to bring more transparency to the scandal-ridden institution. His goal was to make the bank -- where Mafia godfathers once deposited their money for safekeeping -- eligible for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) "white list" of supposedly clean organizations. Tedeschi wanted the Vatican to finally disclose transactions that satisfied international standards on combating money laundering. He failed.
Observers believe that the banker's case is the real core of the scandal, a power struggle over control of the Vatican's finances. This most likely explains why Tedeschi was so vigorously ousted. The bank's board of directors issued absurd justifications for his expulsion, saying that Tedeschi, a professor of business ethics, was unpredictable and had drawn attention to himself through his absences.
In any case, it's clear that Tedeschi has lost out in a struggle against Bertone. It apparently displeased the pope's second-in-command that new guidelines could make a cut in the Vatican's assets.
An Old Guard Ignored
It would be overly simplistic to interpret all of this as merely a conflict between reformers and traditionalists. In reality, it's about the Church's sclerosis, and a problem that has a name: Benedict XVI.
The Vatican's old guard, made up of Italian cardinals and their backers, believed that they had found a transitional pope in Ratzinger. But now the transition is in its eighth year, and the Curia is roughly where it was near the end of the previous pope's life: There's no one in sight to firmly assume the helm.
Benedict XVI surrounds himself with individuals he's known for a long time, and he's given them considerable power. When he appointed Bertone to his senior office, the pope bypassed the usual pecking order of the cliques. He and Gänswein, known in Rome as the "Black Forest Adonis" on account of his southwestern-German origins, have become too powerful and independent for many cardinals in the Curia. Bertone and Gänswein were the primary targets of the attack code-named "Maria."
Cardinals from Italy's provinces have noticed that their access to the Holy See is slipping away. Although Bertone is Italian, he prefers his fellow members of the Salesian order, elevating them to key positions and nominating them as cardinals. In addition, the 77-year-old Bertone is seen as a poor manager and awkward diplomat. In the summer of 2009, a delegation of cardinals reportedly asked the pope to replace him.
But the head of the Vatican administration can hardly be the only target of the "Maria" attacks. The reason for this is that it's highly likely that he would only have remained in office for another six months in any case so as to clear the position for a successor. No, "Maria" is aiming higher than Bertone.
Uncomfortable in Office
The Catholic Church has a leadership problem at the center of its baroque court. The leaked documents ultimately harm Benedict himself, and the scandal is also fundamentally detrimental to the papacy itself. With each additional day of speculation over the true masterminds behind the plot, there is a growing impression of a difficult papacy and a weakened pope who is no longer calling the shots.
For a long time, Ratzinger himself could hardly believe he was suddenly the leader of all Catholics. More than a month after his election, on May 24, 2005, he paid another visit to the place in the Vatican where so many things had begun for him: the seminary in the Campo Santo Teutonico, a green island in the cramped papal state, directly adjacent to the sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica.
He had lived here during the Church's sweeping modernization effort known as Vatican II and, in 1982, he returned to Rome from Munich, staying "in a room with only the bare necessities around me so that I could make a fresh start."
Ratzinger remained loyal to the seminary community until he was elected pope. For decades, he celebrated Mass at 7 a.m. there every Thursday, and he often ate with students in the dining room, had discussions with them and attended the Christmas party in the fireplace room. It was a place to which he could seek refuge from his duties as head of the CDF, a kind of adopted family.
He hasn't been to the seminary since his last visit, in late May 2005, which lasted over an hour. In parting, Ratzinger signed the guestbook. He wrote "Benedict XVI" and then, leaving a small space, scribbled "pope." At first he wrote it with a lower-case p, but then he changed it to an upper-case one.
None of his predecessors had ever signed anything like that -- and Benedict himself would never do it again. It was almost as if he had to tell himself: My God, I'm the pope!
Ratzinger felt uncomfortable with the power he had assumed, which is one reason he has declined to comprehensively reform the system. He has preferred to place his trust in his underlings.
A Need for Family
Benedict doesn't need the Vatican; he needs a small family. Family is sacred to him, and it's something he has always sought throughout his life. The only surviving member of his family is his older brother, Georg. His father, Joseph, died in 1959 and his mother, Maria, in 1963. His sister, Maria, ran his household for about 30 years, even in Rome, until her death in 1991. When she died, he wrote in his memoirs: "The world became a little emptier for me."
For Ratzinger, all of these issues remain unresolved. At the World Meeting of Families held in Milan in early June, he responded to questions about family in an ad hoc and unscripted manner. "Hi, pope," a 7-year-old girl said to him. "I am Cat Tien. I come from Vietnam. I would really like to know something about your family and when you were little like me." The 85-year-old Benedict replied: "To tell the truth, if I try to imagine a little how paradise will be, I think always of the time of my youth, of my childhood. In this context of confidence, of joy and love, we were happy, and I think that paradise must be something like how it was in my youth."
Ratzinger has repeatedly tried to foster this "environment of trust," but it has repeatedly been damaged. When Ratzinger moved into the papal apartments in 2005, he suddenly had to go without a longtime confidante. Ingrid Stampa, the housekeeper who had succeeded his sister, was not permitted to join Ratzinger in his new quarters. She had been disgraced in the Vatican for having once pointed at St. Peter's Square from the window of the pope's apartment and waved to the crowd -- an unforgivable faux pas.
Instead, four lay sisters with the Memores Domini association -- Loredana, Cristina, Manuela and Carmela -- became his new housekeepers. They looked after him for five years, attended his prayers every morning, celebrated Christmas and saints' days with him, and ate their meals with him.
Then one of them, Manuela Camagni, was killed in a traffic accident in 2010. The pope was shaken. He knelt before her coffin, delivered a eulogy and spoke of the "unforgettable family-like moments" he had enjoyed with her.
With the betrayal of his butler, who had been at his side around the clock, the small world of Joseph Ratzinger has once again been thrown out of joint.
The Elusive 'Benedict Effect'
When compared with expectations, the results of Benedict XVI's seven years as pope have been rather modest. The German pope will not be remembered much for his avowed fight to preserve the unity of the Church. Instead, he will be remembered as a victim of circumstances and of fragmented, competing factions, as a pontiff plagued by scandals, mistakes and gaffes. He even built walls back up that seemed to have been worn down long ago. His papacy has consisted of years of ongoing apologies and alleged or actual misunderstandings.
He has annoyed the Protestants by declaring that denominations other than his own are not true churches. He has alienated Muslims with an inept speech in the Bavarian city of Regensburg. And he has insulted Jews by reinserting a prayer for the conversion of the Jews into the Good Friday liturgy.
He has also snubbed the Church by currying favor with the traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X, which rejects the Vatican II reforms. The current backlog of Church reforms, which had already started piling up under his conservative predecessor, John Paul II, has only gotten bigger under Benedict. The Catholics' Day held in May in the southwestern German city of Mannheim, with its 80,000 attendees, was a last cry for change in the Church.
The fact that the pope is German has not had a lasting effect on Germans. When he was newly elected, the German media spoke of a "Benedict effect," of how having a German pope would positively influence conversion and retention rates in Germany. But, if it ever really existed, this effect quickly dissipated. Since Benedict's election in 2005, the number of people leaving the Catholic Church in Germany has more than doubled, and it's been the highest most recently in Ratzinger's former Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. Only 30 percent of Germans are still Catholic today.
The claim, often made by enthusiastic Catholics on German talk shows -- that all of this is a German or European problem and nothing but sour grapes, and that the Church is more successful elsewhere -- isn't even true in deeply Catholic Latin America, where the number of Catholics has been sharply declining. Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, are multiplying there like the loaves and fishes in Canaan.
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