Can the Vatican Survive the Age of Digital Media?

The Vatican in its indictment chose to cast some doubt on this idealistic motivation. The documents revealed that Gabriele had allegedly misappropriated some expensive gifts offered to the pope: a Renaissance translation of Virgil's Aeneid, a gold nugget, and a check for 100,000 euros, which, because it was made out to His Holiness the Pope, would have been impossible for him to cash or deposit. Gabriele acknowledged taking them but says he was planning on giving them back. The indictment also summarized the results of two psychiatric examinations. The court psychiatrists found Gabriele sound of mind and able to stand trial, but one of them found elements of "grandiosity" and "paranoia." Gabriele himself admitted having a flair for "intelligence" work, suggesting he may be a bit of a Walter Mitty, enjoying the spy craft of Vati-leaks. The decision to include this material in a document distributed to the public implies a desire on the Vatican's part to paint this as a case of individual pathology.
Commenting on the investigation, Greg Burke, the new communications director, insisted that Vati-leaks, "is not a cancer. It's an injured toe that will heal. The body is healthy."

* * *

But if the pope's butler is the toe, there is clearly much more to this scandal.

Seen as a whole, the Vati-leaks documents have a common denominator: they describe a series of failed efforts at cleaning up aspects of Church life -- the finances of Vatican City, the Vatican Bank, and relations with Italian politics. And precisely because the leakers had lost an internal power struggle, they appear to have released the documentation of their struggle as their only weapon left, like the parting shot of a retreating army.

The principal target of the leakers is the current Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is seen by his critics as concentrating too much power in his own hands and of not using it wisely or well.

"There is no room for internal criticism or debate, all power is concentrated in a single place," one letter to the pope states. "In various positions, people are nominated to positions where they play the contradictory role of both supervisor and those being supervised ... One sees the demoralization of honest, dedicated officials who are genuinely attached to the Church, leading one to believe that the Pope is not aware of what is happening."

Bertone's supporters insist that this moralizing language masks a naked power grab, the resistance of members of the Vatican old guard, composed mainly of the diplomatic corps, against the encroachment of outsiders -- the real reformers, Benedict and Bertone himself.

Traditionally, the high levels of the Vatican bureaucracy are manned by members of the Church's diplomatic corps, generally graduates of the elite Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy (Pontificia Academia Ecclesiastica) in Rome. It is like the Vatican's foreign service, and rather than becoming parish priests its graduates train to work within the Vatican itself. "These men chose a career, and they regard the Vatican as theirs," one source very close to Bertone told me.

Although he spent 25 years in Rome as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was something of an outsider in the Roman curia, of which he is not particularly fond. Bertone is also a former academic, a longtime professor of Canon Law who was Ratzinger's trusted deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "They are personally quite close," one source says. "Bertone was with Ratzinger when his sister was sick and dying, and helped out in all sorts of ways from being a friend to doing the dishes."

This pope is a scholar, a rather timid and solitary man, who doesn't see that many people and is not that involved in the day-to-day management of the Church. Karol Wojtyla, at least before he got sick, was an extremely sociable person. "He always had six people at lunch, another six at dinner," one source told me. "He met with bishops, Cardinals, papal nunzios; he had a feel for the pulse within the Church." Benedict is more likely to have dinner alone with someone like Wojciech Giertych, a Polish-English Dominican priest, who is the official Vatican theologian. As a former professor of theology, Ratzinger much prefers discussing theology to daily Vatican business.

"The pope does not meet with the members of his government -- the equivalent of his cabinet -- but twice a year," said one ecclesiastical source. "Can you imagine a president who only held cabinet meetings twice a year? One reason for all this letter-writing and all this leaking is that there are not normal channels of communication." The pope has traveled much less than his predecessor and focused on writing and publishing books.

Vatican-Banner-2.jpgAlessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Many of the documents that have been leaked are direct appeals to the pope from high-level figures within the Church and attempts to buck the authority of Bertone, who began traveling widely overseas, acting almost like a surrogate for the pope. The secretary of state was generally someone who stayed in Rome and made the machinery of the Vatican administration run. So when things went badly, many in the Church would blame Bertone. Nor did Bertone endear himself to other Italian cardinals when he arrogated for himself the lead role in managing the Vatican's relationship with Italian politics, something that has traditionally been handled by the Italian Conference of Bishops.

Bertone is particularly close to Gianni Letta, the right-hand man of Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister from 2008 until last November and for much of the past 18 years.

The Church's close association with Berlusconi became a source of increasing tension as details began to emerge about his private life: his separation from his (second) wife in 2009, stories of bunga bunga orgies involving professional escorts and teenage girls, and, finally, a criminal prosecution for frequenting an alleged underage prostitute. He denies any wrongdoing, and the trial is pending.

The Church has been in a tricky position. On the one hand, Berlusconi could hardly seem a less suitable partner: a twice-divorced self-described playboy who has promoted through his private television stations a culture of pure materialism and erotic titillation -- the antithesis of everything the Church stands for. And yet, as the leader of a center-right government, Berlusconi has given the Church almost everything it has asked for on a legislative level: increased support for private religious schools even as public school budgets are cut, continued tax breaks on the Church's non-religious property, some of the most restrictive legislation in Europe on issues like artificial insemination, adoption and stem cell research, fierce opposition to living wills, end-of-life procedures and gay marriage.

As long as Berlusconi kept his private life private, the Church was prepared to close its eyes and hold its nose. But when the lurid details spilled out into the public arena, it became increasingly difficult to ignore. A split appeared to develop between the Conference of Bishops, who are closer to parishioners, and the leaders walled off in the Vatican, who were reluctant to abandon a political ally who had delivered so much in recent years.

The editor of the Conference of Bishop's daily newspaper, L'Avvenire, a man named Dino Boffo, became one of the few voices in the Church to speak out, criticizing Berlusconi's unbecoming conduct in a series of stinging editorials. Shortly afterward, Boffo found himself the object of a vicious attack by the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, which outed him as gay and reported that he had been forced to plead guilty in a sexual harassment suit. Under the pressure of a massive press campaign, Boffo resigned.

This story would have simply been another chapter in the sleazy history of the Berlusconi media. But what came out demonstrates how tangled relations have become between the Vatican and Italian media. One of the two documents that Il Giornale published -- the supposed police file about Boffo's sexual orientation -- turned out to be a fake. And Boffo disputes the charge. In defending his decision to publish, the editor of the paper, Vittorio Feltri, insisted that he had received the dossier from high-level sources inside the Church itself. And that he had consulted with "a personality in the Church whom one must trust because of his institutional role."

In the documents published in Nuzzi's book, Boffo makes clear in a series of letters to the pope's secretary that he blames Bertone and the editor in chief of the Vatican daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano for the leak of the false documents. Boffo quotes Berlusconi's chief spokesman telling journalists off-the-record, "We did Bertone a favor." The idea, according to the letters, was a desire on Bertone's part to weaken the position of the Conference of Italian Bishops, reassert his own control over the Vatican's management of Italian politics, and punish the Conference for daring to criticize Berlusconi in their newspaper.

Along with a full telling of the Boffo affair, His Holiness documents a furious power struggle over the management and finances of the Vatican City itself.

The Vati-leaks crisis in fact began last January, when an Italian TV program called The Untouchables revealed the contents of a set of letters written by a powerful Vatican official, Monsignor Carlo Maria Viganò, denouncing corruption in the affairs of the Vatican itself. In 2009, Viganò took over the job of overseeing the expenses and income of the small Vatican state, known in Italian as the governatorato, with a budget of over $300 million a year, which involves everything from the considerable income of the Vatican Museums to maintaining the enormous physical plant of the Vatican palace and gardens to dealing with suppliers and contractors.

Viganò, who has a reputation as a rigorous manager, inherited a Vatican administration operating at a loss. By cutting costs and eliminating what he called "obvious situations of corruption," he produced a surplus within a year.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his successful cost-cutting measures, Viganò was called to a meeting with Bertone, who informed Viganò that he was being removed from his post and sent as papal envoy to Washington. Viganò then took the quite exceptional step of trying to go around the secretary of state and directly to the pope himself, trying to reverse the decision of his own order of transfer. "Holy Father, my transfer right now would provoke much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments," Viganò wrote to the pope on March 27, 2011.

One of the things that set him off was a press campaign, again appearing in the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, which preceded his defenestration. As resistance to his management grew inside the Vatican, a series of unsigned articles began to appear in the paper, clearly written, in Viganò's view, by someone with intimate knowledge of the Vatican. Viganò suspected that it was someone close to Bertone. Whatever the case, someone inside the Vatican was feeding stories to ll Giornale to grease Viganò's fall from power, just as they had in the Boffo affair.

What is common to these episodes is that Vatican leaking did not start or end with the Vati-leaks scandal. The furious letter-writing activity of both Boffo and Viganò was stimulated by what they perceived to be well-placed leaks from within the Vatican leadership itself. Leaking has become the weapon of choice in contemporary Vatican warfare.

* * *

Anonymous letters, damaging dossiers, and poison penmanship are old staples of Vatican intrigue. The big difference is that all this material was once kept rigorously private -- its power derived from its mere existence and the potential threat of being made public. In the 1930s, for example, the Vatican was trying to restrict the activities of Padre Pio, a monk from Puglia who claimed to have received the stigmata and who was developing a cult following, all of which Church authorities viewed with extreme suspicion. After the Vatican ruled that Padre Pio could no longer perform mass in public and ordered that he be transferred to a distant mountain retreat, followers of the Pugliese monk cooked up a meaty dossier that contained the alleged sexual and moral peccadillos of the region's clergy. A member of Pio's inner circle printed up copies of the dossier and brought them to a meeting at the Vatican. The result of the encounter was the Vatican bought up all copies of the dossier and lightened the restrictions on the suspect friar with the stigmata, who is now one of the Church's leading saints.

That was an example of the old way of doings things at the Vatican: avoiding scandal at all cost and keeping everything under the cloak of silence. Silence suited the Church perfectly. In the case of Padre Pio, it allowed the Church maximum flexibility. The Vatican could continue to assemble evidence against him should they later need to eliminate him while leaving open the option -- because the battle had remained private -- of later embracing Pio as a revered saint, as the Church ultimately decided to do. The contemporary world doesn't permit this. The scabrous details of the struggle between the Vatican and Pio would probably have been all over the Internet in no time.

Presented by

Alexander Stille, the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University, is the author of several books about Italy, including Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic and The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. His family memoir, The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, will be published next February.

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