Exhausted in the Vatican: The Final Battles of Pope Benedict XVI
The mood at the Vatican is apocalyptic. Pope Benedict XVI seems tired, and both unable and unwilling to seize the reins amid fierce infighting and scandal. While Vatican insiders jockey for power and speculate on his successor, Joseph Ratzinger has withdrawn to focus on his still-ambiguous legacy.
Finally, there is clarity. The Holy See has cleared things up and made the document accessible to all: a handout on checking whether apparitions of the Virgin Mary are authentic.
This "breaking news" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) reveals the kinds of issues the Vatican is concerned with -- and the kind of world in which some there live. It's a world in which the official Church investigation of Virgin Mary sightings is carefully regulated while cardinals in the Roman Curia, the Vatican's administrative and judicial apparatus, wield power with absolutely no checks and the pope's private correspondence turns up in the desk drawers of a butler.
It's a completely different apparition of the Virgin Mary that has pulled the Vatican and the Catholic Church into a new crisis, whose end and impact can only be surmised: the appearance of a source in the heart of the Church, a conspiracy against the pope and a leak code-named "Maria."
Since the end of May, the pope's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, has been detained in a 35-square-meter (377-square-foot) cell at the Vatican, with a window but no TV. Using the code name "Maria," he allegedly smuggled faxes and letters out of the pope's private quarters. But it remains unclear who was directing him to do so.
Even with Gabriele's arrest, the leak still hasn't been plugged. More documents were released to the public last week, documents intended primarily to damage two close associates of Pope Benedict XVI: his private secretary, Georg Gänswein, and Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's top administrator. According to one document, "hundreds" of other secret documents would be published if Gänswein and Bertone weren't "kicked out of the Vatican." "This is blackmail," says Vatican expert Marco Politi. "It's like threatening total war."
A House in Disarray
Fear is running rampant in the Curia, where the mood has rarely been this miserable. It's as if someone had poked a stick into a beehive. Men wearing purple robes are rushing around, hectically monitoring correspondence. No one trusts anyone anymore, and some even hesitate to communicate by phone.
It all began in the accursed seventh year of the papacy of Benedict XVI, with striking parallels to the latter part of Pope John Paul II's papacy. The same complaints about poor leadership and internal divisions are being aired outside the Vatican's walls, while the pope himself seems exhausted and no longer able to exert his power.
Joseph Ratzinger turned 85 in April. This makes him the oldest pope in 109 years, and one of the few popes who have exercised what Benedict has called this "enormous" office at such an advanced age.
Of course, he is still enviably fit, both mentally and physically, especially compared to his predecessor in his later years. But speaking has become unmistakably more difficult for Benedict than at the beginning of his papacy, and it's hard to miss that his movements have become stiff and cautious.
He recently told a visitor that his old piano hardly gets any use anymore. Playing it requires practice, he added, but he doesn't have any time for that. He prefers to continue working on the last part of his series on Jesus, which he wants to finish before dying.
A Ship with No Captain
These days, it isn't difficult to find clerics at the Vatican who are willing to talk, provided their identities remain anonymous.
The monsignor who finds his way to a restaurant near Piazza Santa Maria in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood one evening worked closely with Ratzinger in the CDF for years. But even before the waiter arrives with water and wine, the monsignor delivers his verdict on Ratzinger's papacy: "The pope doesn't fully exercise his office!" In his view, instead of having things under control, they control him.
The pope isn't interested in daily affairs at the Vatican, says the anonymous monsignor. Still, this is not exactly unprecedented, as his predecessor also neglected the Curia. While the Polish pope spent a lot of time traveling, his German successor is apparently happiest while poring over books and writing speeches. "He simply isn't taking matters into his own hands," the monsignor says. In essence, he adds, the pope faces a different power in Rome -- and one he hasn't take command of.
Although the Vatican is Catholic, it's also two-thirds Italian. In the end, says the monsignor, the Vatican's employees and administration don't care who among their ranks leads the Church. Even for someone who has been living there for decades, the monsignor says, "the Vatican is a ball of wool that's almost impossible to untangle -- not even by a pope."
When John Paul II died in April 2005, the Curia was in terrible shape. Events and personnel decisions had been postponed during his last few years, in which he was often ill. The new pope was expected to finally clear off the desks and give the Curia a fresh start.
But, for the most part, such reforms haven't materialized. Priests still hold all key positions, including those on the Council for the Laity and the Council for the Family. The only woman in a senior position, Briton Lesley-Anne Knight, was driven out of office as secretary-general of the Catholic development agency Caritas Internationalis in 2011 for having openly opposed the Church's male-dominated hierarchy.
Fractured and Ferocious
A "reform of the Curia" is probably a contradiction in terms. Its hierarchical, essentially medieval organizational model is incompatible with modern management. The Vatican is an anachronistic, albeit surprisingly tenacious system, in which pecking orders and an absurd penchant for secrecy and intrigue prevail. "The only important thing is proximity to the monarch," says a member of a cardinal's staff. Rome works like an absolutist court, one in which decisions are made by people whispering things into the others' ears rather than by committees. "There are many vain people here, people in sharp competition with one another," the staff member adds.
Who spoke with whom, and for how long? What did they talk about? Who attends early Mass with whom, and who invites whom to dinner? Who's in and who's out? Who belongs and who doesn't, and who's coming into favor and who's falling out of it? "This mood fosters feelings of exclusion, discrimination, envy, revenge and resentment," the monsignor says. And all things have now appeared in the so-called Vatileaks documents.
Papal secretary Gänswein, in particular, has made many enemies. As the pope's gatekeeper, he has influence over who is granted or denied the pontiff's favor as well as over which events and issues might command his attention. This power can trigger fear, jealousy and derision in the corridors of the Apostolic Palace, the pope's official residence. For Gänswein, it seemed almost miraculous that he was able to spend an entire evening relaxing and conversing with German clerics at the Vatican's embassy in Berlin last September. It was an experience he couldn't have had in Rome.
The Vatican is disintegrating into dozens of competing interest groups. In the past, it was the Jesuits, the Benedictines, the Franciscans and other orders that competed for respect and sway within the Vatican court. But their influence has waned, and they have now been replaced primarily by the so-called "new clerical communities" that bring the large, cheering crowds to Masses celebrated by the pope: the Neocatechumenate, the Legionaries of Christ and the traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter -- not to mention the worldwide "santa mafia" of Opus Dei.
Perhaps Benedict XVI simply knows the Vatican too well to seriously attempt to reform it. "As pope, this veteran curial insider has turned out to have virtually zero interest in actually running the Roman Curia," writes John L. Allen, a biographer of the pope.
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