Saturday, September 29, 2012

Vatican – the real issues beyond the butler.

The trial of Paolo Gabriele (left with Pope Benedict) began today. He was the Pope’s manservant who is accused of having stolen material from the Pope’s appartment much of which was then published in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s Sua Sanità. Le carte segrete (His Holiness. The Secret Papers) published in May. At worst, he risks four and a half years in gaol, a long way from being stunned and quartered publically by Mastro Titta, the papal executioner 200 years ago (the last public execution was in 1870 with the guillotine a month before Italian forces took Rome. The death penalty was formally removed in 1967 at the same time as Britain). It’s a good story because of the Vatican’s proverbial secrecy and intrigue and because of its ambiguity between its role as an international political and economic power and its claim to spiritual and ethical leadership. Mix that with the pedophile priest scandals (none in the Vatican itself so far but plenty of accusations of cover-ups) and not surprisingly, there is good copy for all.

But it strikes me that the fuss around the leaks and trial story misses the point. “The butler did it” was too tempting a headline to resist but the butler in question is only a very small part of a much more fascinating tale.

There are at least three different divisions within the Vatican. The first is an old one between conservatives and reformers. This is a front that has been around for as long as the Church itself but the present battle lines were fixed 50 years ago around the Second Vatican Council. The role of the faithful in deciding Church doctrine moved from John XXIII’s opening to dialogue to John Paul II’s strongly heirarchical vision. The issues are the ongoing ones: women priests (and more in general, the role of women); legal or illegal abortion, contraception and in general fertility control or enhancement; medical research; relations with other religions and those who have none. These are major issues for all of society but made more controversial within the Roman Catholic community because of the Vatican’s claim to a monopoly of the truth.

The second is a little more recent and pits those who want to keep Vatican financial transactions completely discrete and under sole Vatican supervision and those who feel that the Holy See’s own budget and its banking rules rules should be transparent and respect European regulations. The first loud episode was in the 1980s, when the Vatican bank, the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (IOR) and Banca Ambrosiana scandals blew up. Two of the protagonists met sudden and unexplained death: the bankers Michele Sindona (above left) and Roberto Calvi (below left), one poisoned in prison, the other found hanging under Blackfriars bridge in London, and the third, the head of the IOR, the hardnosed Chicago cleric, Mons. Paul Marcinkus (“You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys”) (below right), was wanted by Italian justice but escaped back to Illinois. Over the last few years, the Holy See found itself on the EU’s grey list of possible money launderers and has once again been forced to look at its own finances and how it manages its banking system. Last year, senior functionary of Vatican finance, Mons. Carlo Maria Viganò wrote to the Pope revealing both improper behaviour and serious waste (and reduced the Vatican’s budget deficit); for his pains he was removed by promotion to papal nunzio in Washington. The lay president of the IOR, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was removed from his job in May. He alleged that it was because he wanted to know the names behind the IOR’s anonymous accounts. Over the last few years both Italian and EU banking authorities have put pressure on the Vatican to respect international banking rules or find themselves in the same company as shady offshore tax havens accused of recycling dirty money. They have begun to change but still have a long way to go and the Gabriele trial will not mention the internal debate.

The third set of cleavages is between factions following this or that cardinal or senior functionary, mostly personal (rather than ideological) power play looking to present advantage or links to a future pope. In this sense, the Vatican is still a mediæval court in which personal loyalty often trumps political positions. But with an aging pope, the debate over succession becomes more urgent but unlike other political successions, cannot be debated openly.

These are divisions that exist in any political system; what makes the Holy See’s version unique is they are played out by an organisation which sets itself up as a spiritual and ethical authority above politics. In practice it is impossible to play international politics and run a bank without getting one’s hands dirty as any Roman for the last 1,500 years well knows. In its politics the Holy See has no transparency or checks and balances and until recently, had none in its banking system so the inevitable court intrigues are inflated and distorted by a political whispering gallery which makes the real one in St. Peter’s dome seem banal. The fog that envelopes the Vatican makes the Kremlin walls (today or in Soviet times) transparent in contrast.

Finally, the present conflicts and scandals are exacerbated by a lack of firm and able leadership. The peculiarities of the papal election process mean that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church may not necessarily have a keen political sense or strong leadership skills. Joseph Ratzinger showed his lack of both early on in his papacy and even though he has dropped fewer bricks over the last few years, the contrast between him and his predecessor’s well-honed political skills is striking. In his public utterances, Benedict is earnest and wellmeaning but neither subtle nor convincing like John Paul II. In private, apparently, he has been unable to mediate between the the factions that swirl around him, something that Woytila was expert at at least until his final illness.

None of the major issues will be touched on in the Gabriele trial but there will be oblique references to them. So we are unlikely to have striking revelations though we will have a few more insights into the Vatican – it is in a transitional state, uncertain how to use contemporary media to present their case at the same time as not revealing too much. A few months ago, they took on Greg Burke, Fox News’ man in Rome to present an American-sytle media face; at the same time in contrast, witnesses are referred to as letters (A, B, C), not names and there are no cameras or court record and a limited pool of journalists.

But it will still be a trial worth following closely for what is said and for what is not said.

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