The Pope, the butler and the cardinal
For centuries, unimpeachable historical evidence shows that the Vatican has been a hive of intrigue, political jockeying for position and corruption.
Murder, cruelty, hypocrisy, dishonesty and sexual depravity among supposedly morally infallible popes have not been unknown. This is, after all, an institution not made in heaven, and it is subject to all the weaknesses and vicissitudes to which man is prey.
This is why what is currently happening in the Vatican is of such interest to us as a Catholic country, now at last with a Cardinal of our own. Given that, according to a recently leaked document, the Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo has said that 85-year-old Benedict will be dead by the end of this year, recent events are of ever-growing interest to the faithful in Malta who will in due course pack St Peter’s Square in Rome to await the first puff of white smoke to celebrate the election of a new pope.
The current saga started almost farcically with Pope Benedict’s butler (shades of what the butler saw) being placed in a cell, accused of leaking a host of confidential letters to a journalist, who subsequently broke the story of intrigue and skulduggery. The papal butler’s incarceration was followed the next day by the dismissal of the head of the Vatican Bank, Gotti Tedeschi, by the Pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Tedeschi’s dismissal was accompanied by a scathing statement accusing him of failing to do his job properly.
An Italian police investigation has fanned fears of more scandalous revelations still to come.
In the manner of Roberto Calvi, the prominent Italian banker found hanging from Waterloo Bridge in London in mysterious circumstances in the 1980s, Tedeschi has since been quoted as saying that he fears for his life.
Behind the row with Tedeschi and the jailing of the Pope’s butler lies an intense, no-holds-barred power struggle to determine the nature of the next papacy.
It is a battle being waged in and around the Vatican’s financial institutions, for herein power lies. The Institute for Works of Religion, as the Vatican Bank is quaintly known, is no stranger to controversy as it was accused in the 1980s of involvement in financial chicanery, including the death of Calvi.
It appears that Tedeschi had opposed a new law, backed by Cardinal Bertone, that increased the Secretary of State’s powers at the expense of the existing, independent oversight body.
The change fitted a wider pattern of the acquisition of ever greater influence by Cardinal Bertone since his return to the Vatican six years ago.
The 77-year-old Cardinal was the Pope’s right-hand man when the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the department on the enforcement of doctrinal orthodoxy.
He is not a true Vatican insider and his underlings in the Secretary of State’s office resent the punchy, football-loving former archbishop for his lack of diplomatic experience.
Intrigue is a staple diet in the Vatican as it is in any other bureaucratic institution where office politics play an inevitable role.
What makes this conflict special, however, is Cardinal Bertone’s repeated efforts to wrest the levers of financial control from others. The Cardinal’s enemies say that this is a grab for the patronage that goes with them. Last year he tried to make the Vatican Bank rescue a debt-ridden hospital and Mr Tedeschi’s refusal to do so presaged their latest row.
To strengthen his position further, Cardinal Bertone has promoted three close associates and former subordinates from his north-west Italy region to positions in charge of the Vatican’s treasury, the Vatican’s central bank and as governor of the Vatican City State, the Holy See’s temporal power-base which also carries great financial clout. All three men were promoted to Cardinal in February.
These promotions have intensified suspicion among Cardinal Bertone’s critics that he is trying to pack the Conclave that will elect the next pope with his own people.
However, for a Secretary of State to ascend to the throne of St Peter is rare, the only example in the last 350 years being Pius XII in 1939.
Whatever his ambitions, Cardinal Bertone is proving a divisive figure. Many had hoped that as a relative outsider to Vatican politics, he would bring transparency, accountability and innovation to a highly centralised bureaucratic machine which was last reformed 45 years ago. The earlier years of Pope Benedict’s papacy saw a succession of diplomatic gaffes from clerical child sex abuse to the mishandling of contraception, homosexuality and Aids, which many Vatican officials blamed on his inexperience.
As long as Cardinal Bertone remains Secretary of State, the infighting in the Vatican seems likely to continue, and the outside world’s concerns about its administration and governance will remain.
The papacy is an institution of great antiquity, history, riches and splendour. It commands admiration even when there is no specific allegiance. It is an institution which appeals to the imagination and our collective sense of history.
But the papacy also has a need to keep its traditions alive by a judicious openness to change.
In this the papacy has a hard task, since it rests ultimately upon theological doctrines that are facing growing challenges.
The papacy has yet to adapt to modern mores, and this will undoubtedly have to await the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. As this latest saga shows, manoeuvring for that event is well under way.