Exhausted in the Vatican

The final battles of Pope Benedict XVI

Published June 19, 2012 2:38PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on SpiegelOnline.

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 While Vatican insiders jockey for power and speculate on his successor, Joseph Ratzinger has withdrawn to focus on his still-ambiguous legacy.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.

Everything will be much easier from now on. The Roman Catholic Church has taken a step forward.

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.

They all have their open and clandestine agents in and around the Vatican, and they all own real estate and run universities, institutes and other educational facilities in Rome. Various cardinals and bishops champion their interests at the Vatican, often without an official or recognizable mandate. At the Vatican, everyone is against everyone, and everyone feels they have God on their side.

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.


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.


Stymied by Vatican Insiders

Ratzinger has only been able to make it through those seven years by making sure he has small escapes. In addition to his everyday duties, he has written books and encyclicals on Christian love ("Deus Caritas Est") and on hope ("Spe Salvi").

Some of his writings have become best-sellers, even in hopelessly secularized Germany. Indeed, this pope has managed to put the Vatican back on the secular world's radar. His encyclicals, his thoughts on reason and faith, and his criticism of the relativism of all values have been closely followed in the press. He has been seen as a pope who understands the zeitgeist.

In fact, the pope's failure to live up to many expectations has actually often benefited the Church. "Christianity, Catholicism, is not a collection of prohibitions; it's a positive option," Benedict said before his trip to Bavaria in 2006. Although he stands behind dogma and pure doctrine, he tries not to alienate anyone, even if he admittedly hasn't always been successful at it. By now, the pope seems about as mild as the Queen of England during his appearances. He knows how to captivate a crowd without spectacular gestures. He has met with Holocaust survivors in Auschwitz, abuse victims in the United States and people with AIDS in Cameroon.

Benedict has understood better than others what the Church's real condition is -- and how far removed it is from his ideal. His stumbling block has always been the Curia. Perhaps the real thing learned over the last seven years is just how powerlessness a pope can be.

Already Searching for a Successor

The pope only wanted to be a "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," a "servant of the truth." Now he stands before the reality of his own mortality. For some time, he has been overcome by periods of "deep sadness," says a source close to Benedict, though he notes that it is unclear whether this is merely sadness or genuine depression.

Ratzinger survived two mild strokes in the early 1990s. Both his father and sister died of strokes. The pope takes aspirin as a preventive medicine. He is plagued by osteoarthritis in his knees, especially the right one. Walking is getting more difficult for him, and he now uses a rolling platform, which he mounts upon entering St. Peter's Basilica, such as when he is wearing heavy garments.

He hasn't gone on vacation in the mountains since 2010. Sometimes he takes short walks with his secretary in the Vatican Gardens, where he says the rosary.

In the Curia and the backrooms of the Vatican's palaces, efforts are already underway to search for a successor. The possible outcomes of a conclave are analyzed and candidates are discussed, as was done seven years ago. Some say the next pope should be someone like Pius XII, the pope between 1939 and 1958 who was a calculating and predictable power player and Vatican insider. Or someone like Paul VI, the pope from 1963 to 1978, who paid attention to the Curia's interests. The name of Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, has been mentioned, as has that of Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine cardinal with Italian roots. Another possible candidate is Curia Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and one of the few Vatican insiders who is adept at handling the media, politics and the public.

The Italians, with 30 votes, still form the largest bloc in a conclave. Some believe that, after more than 33 years of foreign dominance -- first by a Pole and then by a German -- it's high time to elect an Italian pope. After all, proponents of the idea argue, an Italian cardinal knows the Roman Curia best. But the Italians' prospects have become slim since Vatileaks, says Vatican expert Marco Politi. "If the scandal has exposed one thing, it is the typical Italian mess. Italians are no longer seen as papabile (capable of becoming pope). They have discredited themselves with their power struggle."

Last Days and Legacies

Benedict himself knows that he doesn't have much time left. "The last segment of my life is now beginning," he told birthday guests in April.

In fact, his planning hardly goes past next July, when he will attend the Catholic "World Youth Day" in Rio de Janeiro. Healing the rift with the SSPX will be at the top of his agenda in the coming weeks, in addition to admonishing feuding groups to exercise mutual respect.

With the dispute that has erupted over the assessment of the reforms of Vatican II, which began 50 years, the pope is now experiencing a return to his own past. Will the once liberal-minded and now conservative pastor find the strength to foster reconciliation at the end of his life? To blaze some middle path between tradition and modernity for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics?

"Stalin was right in saying that the pope has no divisions and cannot issue commands," Benedict said in the 2010 book-length interview "Light of the World." "Nor does he have a big business in which all the faithful of the Church are his employees or his subordinates. In that respect, the pope is, on the one hand, a completely powerless man. On the other hand, he bears a great responsibility."

Benedict has always seen himself as a teaching rather than a governing pontiff. The professor-pope from the small Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn will undoubtedly not go down in the annals of Church history as Benedict the Great.

But he will be remembered as a church leader with a human face, as someone who has remained true to himself as a theologian, and as someone who turned his back on the power within his own four walls. In other words, as a pope with a lower-case p.

You can follow Peter Wensierski on Twitter @wensierski.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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