Monday, March 11, 2013

Our Man in the Vatican

Virgilio Scattolini was a man with imagination and an eye for the main chance… or at least an easier life. Before, during and after the war, he gave out (or rather, sold) information on what was going on in the Vatican. Given the crucial role that Pius XII and the whole of the Vatican played over that period, his intelligence found a ready market among journalist and spies of all sorts. When the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor) archives were opened in the Seventies, historians too lapped up Scattolini’s wisdom stored in Washington and now made more reliable by the “Top Secret” stamp.

The problem was that Scattolini was making it all up.

Graham Greene was in Rome at the time of Scattolini’s trial for fraud which was well covered in the Italian and British press (which punned on his name and called him “little boxes”) and I would like to think that he took Scattolini as his model for Jim Wormald, Our Man in Havana, the vacuum cleaner salesman who invents a Cuban weapons programme to keep MI5 happy.

Today, the world is a lot less tense and some cardinals tweet and blog and give interviews but the Vatican remains a very secretive place; the conclave is no ordinary election process. Even the recent transfer of power in China was done in the presence of party representatives. But nominally at least, Chinese leaders are responsible to the Chinese people, not the Holy Spirit.

This means that there are still a lot of latterday Scattolinis in Rome at the moment.

I doubt that any of them… us, I suppose since I’m also asked to explain the goings on across the river, actively fabricate stories like Wormald but the reliability of our information is always a bit shaky and the temptation to embellish is very strong. The stakes are high as always but this time, more explicit than during other conclaves: sex, money and power. And the spiritual aspect of the papal succession just adds spice to the story. No one expects the presidents of the US or China to be men of God. Only in Iran and Tibet is the leader supposed to have religious qualifications alongside the political. And then, at a much more frivolous level, no one can match the Vatican for pomp and ceremony: 115 scarlet-robed gentlemen locked into a chapel painted by Michelangelo in a square colonnaded by Bernini. It is difficult to beat as the show and the substance coincide. A British coronation or a presidential inauguration is just the showy part, the substance took place elsewhere. Here they are together which explains why there are almost more journalists staking out St. Peter’s than pilgrims and tourists.

On the issues, there seems to be agreement among the cardinals that speak that the new pope should be young and energetic enough to reform the curia though there is no agreement on whether an insider with experience of the workings of the Vatican government would be better than an untainted but inexperienced outsider. He must decide on what role the Vatican banking system should play, whether to fully integrate it into the regulated European system or maintain its status as a limited off-shore tax haven. And then he must deal with sexual issues both inside and outside the Church. These go from the “inappropriate behaviour” of Cardinal Keith O’Brien (which if it was gay sex between consenting adults is legally hardly a problem in Britain today) to covering up serious criminal acts of raping children. Finally the new man will have to address the declining congregation of Catholics across the world – to secularism in Europe and North America and mostly to the competition woth Christian evangelicals in the Africa and South America.

The spiritual qualities of Their Eminences are taken for granted by members of the college. In any case, if any of them think that one of their fellow cardinals is too worldly, they are not going to say so in public.

The job description is clear enough; the candidates much less so. Since all the cardinals were appointed by two very conservative popes, the new man is unlikely to be a liberal but the Thomas à Becket syndrome does sometimes take over. This is when an appointee decides his responsibility is more towards the job itself than to the person who appointed him. It happens now and then in the US Supreme Court.

So from external deductions, the profile of the new pope is youngish, active with some curial experience but not too much, from the developing world and conservative. But anything can happen in the secrecy of the Sistine Chapel and no Scattolini is going to reveal the cardinals’ game plans.

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