It’s been called “a strategy of tension, an orgy of vendettas and preemptive vendettas that has now spun out of the control of those who thought they could orchestrate it.” The tale so far has touched on treachery, betrayal, greed, corruption, ambition, not to mention secret passageways, disappearing papers and tight-lipped suspects.
A government scandal? The latest Dan Brown potboiler? Skullduggery on Wall Street? A daytime soap?
Well, no. It concerns the Vatican—the Holy See, the epicenter of the 1.3-billion-strong Catholic faith and seat of power of its Supreme Pontiff and “Vicar of Christ on earth,” Pope Benedict XVI. In the year of our Lord 2012, the world’s tiniest state is in the throes of a scandal that has the world’s press buzzing.
Reports say that last May 23, one of the Pope’s closest aides, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested after Vatican investigators discovered confidential papal documents in his apartment. Described as a shy, taciturn man unfailingly loyal to the Pope, Gabriele—whose duties included helping dress Benedict in his vestments, serving him his meals and riding with him as a bodyguard in the Popemobile—is perhaps the last person to be suspected of betraying his master. He is said to be one of fewer than 10 people who held the key to secret entrances leading to the Pope’s private apartments. Now an Italian cardinal has called him the most damning name in the Catholic book—Judas, the betrayer of Jesus.
What were in those papers, anyhow? They are said to lay out, in great detail, a sordid picture of a Vatican wracked by infighting among its top cardinal-administrators, involving charges of cronyism, corrupt business practices and dishonest behavior. Before Gabriele’s arrest, a trove of documents had already been leaked to an Italian investigative journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, who then published the papers and also wrote a book about them.
“Vatileaks,” as it’s been dubbed, and for which Gabriele now stands as the main suspect, paints the Holy See as a viper’s nest of machinations by powerful men of the cloth. That environment, some believe, may have led to Gabriele becoming an unwitting pawn in the cardinals’ shadowy games.
“The motivations for the leaks remain unclear,” the Washington Post reports. “Some commentators say they appear designed to discredit Benedict’s No. 2, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Others say they’re aimed at undermining the Vatican’s efforts to become more financially transparent. Still others say they aim to show the 85-year-old Benedict’s weakness in running the church.”
“The scandal,” adds the Post, “represents one of the greatest breaches of trust and security for the Holy See in recent memory.” Reuters, on the other hand, calls it “the worst crisis in Pope Benedict’s pontificate”—a significant claim, considering that this Pope’s brief reign so far has been marked by one gaffe and maladroit move after another, from the clumsy, insensitive handling of the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Church to a string of ill-advised pronouncements on Jews, Muslims and Protestants.
Under the seemingly aloof, bookish Benedict, who has none of his beloved predecessor’s telegenic savvy, the Church has lurched from one public-relations disaster to another. “Vatileaks” is but the latest installment. Whatever the reasons behind it, the current Vatican imbroglio can only contribute to the widening feeling of a worldwide malaise in the Catholic Church, whose moral authority has been continually diminished by stories and revelations of less-than-exemplary behavior by its leaders.
In the Philippines, for instance, the Church had its own recent moment of ignominy when some members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines were revealed to have been plied with vehicles and emoluments during the term of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, clearly to keep the institution by her side as her administration sank ever deeper in the public esteem. The cooptation was scandalous enough, but what made the matter more distasteful was the bishops’ initial angry denial of wrongdoing and claim of persecution.
The late Pope John XXIII had a word for what the Church needed when he convened the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s: aggiornamento—Italian for “bringing up to date,” but which he expressed more plainly as “letting some fresh air into the Church.” It appears that the Vatican and the great religion it represents are again in need of some aggiornamento.
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