VATICAN CITY – If evidence was ever needed that the next pope must urgently overhaul the powerful Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia, the scandal over Pope Benedict XVI’s private papers is exhibit A.
The pope’s butler stole sensitive internal letters to the pontiff and passed them on to a journalist, who then published them in a blockbuster book. The butler said he did it to expose the “evil and corruption” in the Vatican’s frescoed halls that he believed was hidden from Benedict by those who were supposed to serve him.
If that wasn’t enough, the content of the leaks confirmed that the next pope has a very messy house to clean up. The letters and memos exposed petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. The dirt ranged from the awarding of Vatican contracts to a plot purportedly orchestrated by senior Vatican officials to expose a prominent Catholic newspaper editor as gay.
Ordinary Catholics might not think that dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace has any effect on their lives, but it does: The Curia decides everything from bishop appointments to church closings to marriage annulments to disciple given pedophile priests. Papal politics plays into the prayers the faithful say at Mass since missal translations are decided by committee in Rome. Donations the faithful make each year for the pope are held by a Vatican bank whose lack of financial transparency has fueled bitter internal debate.
So after 35 years under two “scholar” popes who paid scant attention to the internal governance of the Catholic Church, a chorus is growing that the next pontiff must have a solid track record managing a complicated bureaucracy. Cardinals who will vote in next month’s conclave openly are talking about the need for reform, particularly given the dysfunction exposed by the scandal.
“It has to be attended to,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, calling the leaks scandal “a novel event for us.”
The Curia must adapt itself to the 21st century, said Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German who retired in 2010 as the head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office.
“There needs to be more coordination between the offices, more collegiality and communication,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “Often, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
Sandro Magister, the Vatican analyst who most closely follows the comings, goings and internecine feuds of Vatican officials, said the “disaster” of governance began unfolding in the 1980s, in the early years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
“John Paul II was completely disinterested in the Curia; his vision was completely directed to the outside,” Magister said. “He allowed a proliferation of feuds, small centers of power that fought among themselves with much ambition, careerism and betrayal. ... This accumulated and ruined it for the next pope.”
Benedict was well aware of the problems, having spent almost a quarter-century in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But he never entered into the Vatican’s political fray as a cardinal, and as pope left it to his No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to do the job.
Bertone, though, became a lightning rod for division within the Curia. An expert in church law, he had no diplomatic experience coming into the job. The main battle lines drawn in the Curia today come down to his loyalists and those still loyal to his predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Taken as a whole, the leaked documents seemed aimed at undermining Bertone.
To be fair, the Vatican under Benedict made great strides on some internal governance fronts:
- The pope insisted on greater financial transparency.
- The Vatican passed a key European anti-money laundering test last summer.
- Benedict insisted on a Vatican trial, open to journalists, for the butler who betrayed him.
- As a cardinal, after priestly sex abuse cases bounced for years among Vatican offices, the former Joseph Ratzinger took them over himself in 2001.
- Very early in his papacy, Benedict also made it clear there was no place in the priesthood for men who sought out power.
The Holy See’s bureaucracy is organized as any government, though it most closely resembles a medieval court – given that the pope is an absolute monarch, with full executive, legal and judicial powers.
There’s a legal office, an economic affairs office and an office dedicated to the world’s 400,000 priests. A host of departments take up spiritual matters, including naming saints.
In the end, though, the real power lies with two departments: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the secretariat of state, which can block virtually any initiative of another office.
“Who is influential isn’t so much dependent on what your office is or your title but whether you have access to the king, or in this case the pope,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican,” a guide to understanding the Curia.
The same could be said for any executive branch. But in the case of the Vatican, there’s a difference.
“Obama can fire anybody he wants from his cabinet,” Reese said. “When you make someone a bishop, you make him a bishop for life. When you make him a cardinal you make him a prince of the church. What do you do with a cardinal (who doesn’t work out)? He can’t go to K Street and get a job as a lobbyist.”