Now, it seems necessary to speculate whether it wasn't perhaps a few wolves in sheep's clothing that made life difficult for Benedict. He was all too familiar with the machinations of the members of the curia. But only Benedict himself can judge how greatly he despised this reality and how alien it must have been to him.
The groups are beginning to coalesce. Time is short until next month's papal conclave, but the fronts are hard-fought. Reformers (a few) face off against opponents of reform (more than a few), curial cardinals against those arriving in Rome from around the world, incorrigible Europeans against fresh non-Europeans, conservative Africans against open-minded South Americans. Four rounds of voting in 26 hours, as was the case in the Ratzinger election, are hardly likely to suffice this time.
"God has already decided," says Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, as if to console himself. Nevertheless, the princes of the church are positioning themselves to make that decision known to the general public, as well as to push it through against deaf and undiscerning colleagues.
Benedict's mumbled announcement of his resignation was the starting gun for preparations ahead of the pre-conclave. It is a time when cardinals come together -- purely coincidentally, of course, for reasons having nothing to do with Benedict's resignation. They converse quietly in small seafood restaurants outside the Vatican, they pray -- and they consider coalitions and subversions.
This was already evident in Rome on Ash Wednesday, two days after Benedict's announcement. While the line of pilgrims circled once around St. Peter's Square and Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone quickly reviewed his farewell speech, a book was being presented in a brightly lit bookstore near Rome's Termini train station, one in which facts and fiction quickly become intertwined.
The book is about the "bloody war of the cardinals before the conclave," about the Vatican bank IOR, the Opus Dei society, and a secret dossier on sexual abuse, and it describes how two favorites for the papacy eliminate each other and two others die. There is a new pope in the end -- a Chinese pope.
A Frenzy of Interpretation
It's only a novel, of course, but "Le mani sul Vaticano" is certainly inspired by the realities that exist within the curia. For several years, author Carlo Marroni has been one of the most influential Vaticanisti, the correspondents at the Vatican, and the diplomatic correspondent for the business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. His book now reads like something of a forecast of the conclave.
Vatican correspondents agree that there will be a battle for control. The focus is already on holding on to power, the threat that heads will roll and on the web of relationships within the curia after Ratzinger's departure.
Only a day after Benedict's announcement, two former enemies are appeared together in public, seemingly on good terms, with newspapers launching into a frenzy of interpretation. It was Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone, the man who wields the most power at the Vatican after the pope, and Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Bertone has been sharply criticized for his dubious role in the Vatileaks affair, while Bagnasco was his subtle adversary. Both men are "papabili," or possible successors to Benedict.
The man whose ascension both men are trying to prevent, according to rumors spread by Italian newspapers, is Angelo Scola, the 72-year-old archbishop of Milan. Scola, a student of Ratzinger, is the favored candidate of the fundamentalist group within the curia, and is closely aligned with the conservative lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, which in turn is associated with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The conservative Scola is currently considered the Italian frontrunner for the papal election.
The battle between Secretary of State Bertone and his predecessor, Angelo Sodano, is also heating up. Sodano holds Bertone responsible for "depravity" in the "poorly run Vatican state," says Marco Ansaldo of the Italian daily La Repubblica. According to Ansaldo, both men will gain more power after Benedict's resignation, and they will also come into conflict with each other. Sodano will head the conclave, and has begun mobilizing his supporters. Bertano, who, as "Camerlengo", manages the property and revenues of the Holy See, is doing the same thing.
There is a saying in secular Rome: "morto un papa se ne fa un altro", or "if a pope dies, one simply makes another one." But it isn't that easy this time. The pope is still alive and the curia is divided, which makes everything so difficult to predict.
Influencing the Vote?
Joseph Ratzinger, Bishop of Rome emeritus, will not be present at the conclave. He is five years too old for that. For days, papal spokesman Federico Lombardi has denied that the soon-to-be-ex-pope could nevertheless influence the conclave's decision, saying that Benedict is too modest. But no one believes Lombardi.
Every word Benedict will utter in the coming days will be carefully analyzed and possibly even interpreted as a message to the conclave. This was already evident at the Ash Wednesday mass, at which Benedict spoke of "religious hypocrisy," of "individuals and rivalries" and of "sins against the unity of the church and divisions in the body of the church." All of this is unambiguous criticism, a settling of accounts, as well as an allusion to the conclave and a preview of what could come in the next few weeks.
Benedict is giving up power and, at the same time, is accusing his underlings of being obsessed with power, and of clinging to power and of thus being unable to follow their hearts, as he has done. A comparably explosive constellation hasn't been seen at the Vatican in a long time.
Power brokers and lobbyists are already nervously testing the waters to determine what snares could entrap the next pope. Most of all, what will it mean for him if his predecessor isn't already in his tomb, but is still in full command of his faculties and residing only a few steps away from the Apostolic Palace?
Benedict has been careful to point out that he intends to "hide from the world." Nevertheless, he will be a source of conflict for as long as he lives. How will the cardinals behave when a new pope makes mistakes, when he spoils his relationship with key factions in the curia or when he launches reforms blocked by his predecessor? Benedict himself won't even have to comment, as long as real or supposed confidants whisper anything about how the old man feels about the change of course -- and his successor's position will already be weakened.
Tensions are already looming. Benedict's closest confidant, Gänswein, will perhaps be serving two masters in the future. The 56-year-old curial archbishop will "remain prefect of the papal household and will also be secretary to Benedict," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
'A Shadow Pope'
As a result, Gänswein is likely to become one of the most influential bishops in the Roman court. At the same time, he will live near Benedict's new residence in the monastery opposite St. Peter's Basilica, where they will be able to receive visitors together and discuss the condition of the church. Gänswein will also play an important role as prefect of the papal household.
"Benedict threatens to become a shadow pope," says Swiss theologian Hans Küng. One cannot simply stop being pope, says Benedict biographer Andreas Englisch. "In the worst case, a part of the church would split off, perhaps because Ratzinger believed that his successor was doing great harm to the church."
Vatican expert John L. Allen, on the other hand, believes the radicalism of Benedict's gesture could encourage the cardinals to "think outside the box and assume the risk of taking a new step." The signal, murmured in Latin on Monday, couldn't have been clearer: It can't go on like this.
In other words, it is quite possible that the conclave will bring about a change in direction, even though the current pope appointed 67 of the 117-member electorate. Perhaps it will mean that a non-European will be elected for the first time, or someone who is not as fixated on the supposed cultural decay as Benedict. Or perhaps it will lead to a McKinsey pope, a man equipped with sufficient managerial qualities to bring the wind of change into the administration of the Catholic empire.
The shadow of the "good" Pope John XXIII will also hang over the conclave -- as a hope for some and a warning for others. He was a surprise pope, largely unknown, who suddenly had the courage to open up the church. With the reform council of 1962 to 1965, John XXIII led his church into the 20th century.
A new John would have to do the same for the 21st century. He would have to transform the globalized church from an empire into a commonwealth, in which regional differences are possible and not every theologian whose views are deemed objectionable could be silenced by a papal pronouncement from Rome.