Vatican's 'Italian village' spills secrets

May 14, 2012

At first it seemed only Italians could possibly care about petty office politics in the Vatican. But three months into the Vatileaks scandal, non-Italians are beginning to wonder.

The Vatican raised eyebrows when, in late April, Pope Benedict established a three-cardinal commission to investigate a series of leaks of letters exchanged among Vatican officials and between these officials and the pope himself.

"I know bishops are concerned and they have good reason to be concerned," said Father Tom Rosica, who sits on the Pontifical Council for Social Communication and has been a frequent visitor to Rome since his days as CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

"It calls into question all of us. Here we are trying to launch the year of the new evangelization, the project of the new evangelization, and we're dealing with a lot of dead wood."

Rosica's not entirely certain three elderly, retired cardinals with an open-ended mandate without deadlines is quite the broom the Vatican needs to sweep away these headlines.

There are big differences between how the Vatileaks story is perceived in North America and the Italian obsession with every confidential memo and email that's found its way into the press over the last three months.

"In Italy it's been a huge cultural phenomenon since January," National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen Jr. told The Catholic Register in an interview from Rome. "You can't go anywhere in this town without running into somebody who wants to talk about it."

If nothing else, the decision to appoint a commission made up of three prominent cardinals in their 80s indicates Pope Benedict wants this problem dealt with at the highest level in the Church.

Vatican concern does not stem from the content of the leaks so much as the fact that confidential documents are turning up in every newsroom in Rome.

"This isn't about the myth of Vatican secrecy. It's about any institution and it wanting to keep certain things confidential," said Allen.

If the Vatican can't keep its internal business internal, bishops around the world, United Nations institutions and governments may begin to question what they should share with the Holy See.

"This has created widespread impressions of administrative disarray and political infighting and political axes being ground inside the Vatican," notes Allen. "That's quite obviously an impediment to Benedict's idea of the new evangelization. Nobody is going to be evangelized to a Church that looks like it's in meltdown."

From Pope Benedict's remarks about violence and Islam in a speech in 2006 through lifting the excommunication on Society of St. Pius X Bishop Richard Williamson the same day he was seen on Swedish television doubting that any Jews were killed in the Holocaust, to the 2009 resignation of Avvenire editor Dino Boffo and public relations missteps that seem to pile one on top of another, this papacy has gained a reputation for sloppy, slow, tone-deaf administration.


"The rap against (Pope Benedict) for seven years has been that this is a great teaching pope but he's not a very good governing pope," said Allen. "And not particularly interested in governance."

Empowering cardinals to get to the bottom of the leaks is meant to signal a new seriousness about getting things right administratively.

The odd part of the scandals is there's not much scandal in them. The idea that some Vatican contracts may have been awarded to people loyal to the Holy See rather than the lowest bidder hardly comes as a shock. In Italy, deep and longstanding relationships are valued at least as much as numbers.

"The content of the documents is not the problem. Either they're comically ridiculous or they actually help the Vatican," said Allen. "They're confidential documents that clearly are being leaked by insiders and not for courageous reasons of whistle-blowing but to grind petty political axes. That's the problem."


People should not be shocked or distressed that petty human sinfulness has wormed its way into the Vatican bureaucracy, said Rosica.

"The Vatican is a very human institution. It's a human institution with human beings in it. They're not angels in the Vatican," said Rosica.

In fact, they are Italians, points out Allen. "For all its cosmopolitanism, the Vatican is still in many ways an Italian village. . . . (Italians) put a high premium on relationships. They put a great emphasis on the bella figura, which means you don't savage one another in public - which in comparison with American politics is actually quite refreshing.

"But it also has the weakness of Italian villages, which are you get these kind of petty, personal animosities with an emphasis on whose tribe you belong to," said Allen.