Can the Vatican Survive the Age of Digital Media?

The traditional aversion to scandal at all cost was notoriously -- and disastrously -- at work throughout the decades in which the pedophile priest scandal built and built. Starting in the 1980s, the reaction of Church officials was uniformly and appallingly similar in every corner of the planet -- whether in Louisiana, Ireland, Belgium, Australia, Austria, Malta, Phoenix, Boston or Los Angeles: deny there was a problem, blame the victims, transfer the perpetrators, and try to keep everyone quiet. When the victims sued, or the perpetrators threatened to make trouble, the strategy was pay them off and seal the court records. I remember a friend of mine who worked at the Vatican telling me in the early 1990's: "You wouldn't believe the amounts of money the Church is spending to settle these cases!" If that was well known to my friend, a middle-level functionary, it was well known to anyone in the Vatican hierarchy who cared to know. In the U.S., the costs were reaching the hundreds of millions and would eventually surpass $2 billion. Of course, if the Church had dealt honestly with the problem then, it might have limited the impact of the scandal and the cost of litigation -- not to mention the seemingly overlooked goal of protecting children left at risk and healing those already harmed.

The lesson of both the pedophilia scandal and Vati-leaks is that the Church can no longer control information about itself. In the past, when police arrested priests who were acting out, they generally took the matter to the local bishop, and newspapers often chose, out of deference, not to write about it. Changes in public opinion -- anger and outrage over wrongdoing in the Church -- and in information technology make it impossible to keep the lid on scandal.

There is much the Church can and has begun to do in this direction: adopting international banking standards; providing more information about internal finances; instituting better procedures for investigating and punishing wrongdoing among priests and nuns.

But transparency is not as easy a matter for the Catholic Church as it might be for secular organizations. A corporation or branch of government can actually gain in public legitimacy and consensus through greater transparency, issuing detailed data about their operations and finances, publishing the minutes of their meetings, and instituting freedom of information laws. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said of corruption. But there is a limited amount of sunshine the Vatican can allow into its walls without violating its very nature. Absolute monarchies are willfully opaque and mysterious; they are an archaic and charismatic form of leadership that derive much of their power from their mystery, unapproachability, and unknowability. In democracies, we expect national leaders to issue exhaustive medical and financial records. In Thailand -- one of the last monarchies with genuine power -- anyone can be prosecuted for criticizing the king or disclosing information about his health or finances.

The pope -- with his golden mitre and ermine-lined robes sitting upon a throne -- is part and parcel of this tradition. Although human, the pope is thought to have been filled with the Holy Spirit on his election and to become infallible (at least in some things). The Catholic tradition rests heavily on the appeal of mystery. The priest was traditionally a special, higher being, celibate and richly dressed in ancient garb. He celebrated mass with his back to the congregation, swinging urns of incense and repeating the liturgy in an ancient, incomprehensible tongue, Latin, which served as a kind of magic incantation. The holy communion that ends each mass is itself a kind miracle -- it is not a symbolic reenactment of the last supper but the wafer and wine that the priest serves to his humble parishioners is supposed to be, quite literally, the body and the blood of Christ. Too much transparency -- the equivalent of placing a Webcam on the Pope and his cardinals -- would strip away layers of mystery. It would be like pulling away the curtain at the end of The Wizard of Oz, revealing that the awe-inspiring figure we first see in Oz's throne room is nothing but a frail and highly fallible old man.

Vaitcan-Banner-3.jpgTony Gentile/Reuters

"The problem is that journalists only pay attention to the tiny part of the Church that is in the Vatican and ignore the tens of thousands of priests and nuns out in the world doing good work," the pope's spokesman, Father Lombardi, said with a resigned air. And it is quite true. Over the years, I have met extraordinary men and women who have sincerely given their lives to help others: feeding the poor and healing the sick. Just before coming to Rome, I visited a parish on the periphery of Florence, a neglected poor part of the city with bleak public housing projects, few services, and a largely immigrant population. But it has an extremely vital church -- an inexpensive prefab structure that looks like a warehouse building or an airplane hangar built in the hot and dusty empty lot between two high-rise public-housing buildings.

The priest, Alessandro Santoro, is trying to translate the life of Christ into contemporary terms: he lives in a small apartment in public housing like his parishioners, and he has a job doing manual labor (like his parishioners) on top of his priestly duties. Yet he has created an extremely dynamic parish church that hums with activity, a preschool and Sunday school, language classes for immigrants, a shop for products made by his parishioners and even a small publishing house. Santoro has created a significant microfinance project for his community, gathering some 160,000 euros in charitable contributions that can then be used as interest-free loans to people in the community. The lenders can withdraw their money when they need or want it but in the meanwhile the money is made available to others in the community. "So far we have a perfect record of 190 loans repaid on time for a total of 400,000 euros," Santoro explained. The visit was a refreshing contrast with the world of power and money conjured up by Vati-leaks: an example of someone trying (apparently with success) to put Christian principles to work in life.

But it is impossible to ignore the Vatican hierarchy, just as Father Alessandro has been unable to ignore it. In 2009, he was removed from his position in Florence when he celebrated the marriage of two parishioners, one of whom was a transsexual. "This person was born a man but had a sex change operation 30 years earlier in England years before it was possible in Italy," Santoro told me. "She was registered as a woman according to Italian law, and the couple had been legally married in Italy. They were good members of our congregation, and when they asked to be married in the Church, I didn't see how, in good conscience, I could say no." Almost immediately, Santoro was sent off for several months of reflection and penitence. In the meanwhile, the congregation rebelled and refused to cooperate with Santoro's replacement. After a standoff lasting nearly a year, Santoro refused to repudiate his actions but the bishop restored him to his post amid admonitions not to repeat his error. Santoro is delighted to be back with his old parish but lives a bit on edge in tension with his bishop.

"The Church has a single model of family that it considers acceptable: husband, wife and children. But 80 percent of my parishioners live in violation of Church doctrine," Santoro explains. "They are divorced, unmarried couples that live together, gay couples, children with different fathers. But they are my people, my family. I love them and I have no intention of treating them any differently from the rest of the congregation ... There is a terrible distance between what the Church preaches and the real lives of people. The Church has to reduce this distance or die."

The call for transparency goes hand in hand with a desire for greater dialogue between the community of believers and the Church hierarchy. The Internet world is a world of fragmented authority, of transparency, and one in which 3 billion users expect to participate and have their say. The Catholic Church is a top-down organization run from Rome with an unquestioned authority at its head. "Roma locuta, causa finita," "Rome has spoken, the case is closed," is a phrase often attributed to Saint Augustine, indicating that the word from Saint Peter's settles every argument.

The Vatican leadership is aware of this problem, but also very much believes that a Church that compromises too much to suit public opinion will weaken its own foundations. In a recent interview explaining the need to crack down on the main association of American nuns, The Leadership Conference of Women Religious [LCWR], Cardinal William Levada (Ratzinger's successor as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), said: "Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic Church, aren't representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity."

But holding the line on strict orthodoxy, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to do, has not reversed the negative trends for the Church: the dwindling number of aging priests and nuns, lower attendance at mass, and a growing majority of believers in the U.S. and Europe who are not convinced by the Church's teachings on contraception, divorce, premarital sex, the ordination of women, married priests, and gay marriage. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that lapsed Catholics are now the third-largest denomination in the U.S. after practicing Catholics and Baptists. (Overall numbers are up because of immigration from Latin America, and in the rest of world because of population growth in the developing world. But numbers and enthusiasm in the U.S. and Europe are low.) "Don't you think the leadership knows that its doctrines on birth control, divorce, homosexuality are out of step with the life that hundreds of millions of Catholics lead?" one Bertone supporter I spoke with told me. "The pope is trying to change things, but he has to move slowly. The times for an ancient institution like the Church are necessarily slow."

On the one hand, Pope Benedict has reinforced forms of traditional liturgy: relaxing the prohibitions on performing Latin masses, and reviving the papal vestments and pageantry that had fallen out of use. At the same time, he shows signs of flexibility and gentleness that belie his old nickname as "God's Rottweiler." In fact, he quietly undid one of Pope John Paul II's strictest -- and cruelest -- initiatives: refusing to let priests who have decided to marry be released of their priestly vows and remain members of the Church in good standing. Benedict allowed the use of condoms by male prostitutes in Africa in order to limit the spread of AIDS -- 30 years after the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, yes, but a big concession for a pope known for his orthodoxy. On a visit to Milan this summer, shortly after the Vati-leaks scandal hit its peak, Benedict went out of his way to reach out to divorced Catholics, calling their condition "one of the great causes of suffering for the Church today, and we do not have simple solutions." He insisted, however, that the Church "must do everything possible so that such people feel loved and accepted, that they are not 'outsiders' even if they cannot receive absolution and the Eucharist."

What does appear to be the case is that, paradoxically, the Vati-leaks scandal appears to have energized the pope and the Vatican leadership. The pope has broken out of his solitude, and appears to be taking a more active role in important Vatican business. He has reached out to cardinals from other parts of the world in a clear sign that he does not intend to remain prisoner of the Roman curia. The very fact of a public trial on such a delicate matter -- quite apart from what its proceedings may reveal -- reflects a newfound commitment at the Vatican to transparency.

There are two ways that the Catholic Church can interpret its mandate to become more open. One is a more limited form of transparency, seeing it essentially as a matter of better communication: providing information more quickly and readily so as to better shape the way the Church's story is told. A second and more radical way of thinking of transparency would be to embrace the bottom-up nature of the Internet world, to encourage greater internal democracy and engage in dialogue with the community of believers.

While the Vatican has clearly begun to adopt the first course, it is very unlikely to embrace the second and more expansive view of transparency, disappointing its liberal critics and followers. The retired Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who died in late August, left an interview from his deathbed as a kind of last testament to the Church. It was a surprisingly frank call for radical change. "We need to ask ourselves whether people are listening to the Church's teachings on sexual matters. Is the Church an authority in this or only a kind of media caricature? ...The Church is 200 years behind. Why doesn't it shake itself off? Are we afraid? Why fear instead of courage?"

And yet. The fact that Martini found the courage to speak so candidly only posthumously demonstrates that substantive dialogue within the Church is still a difficult, slow-moving proposition. As the current trial illustrates, the Church's traditional pace of change does not suit it to the age of the Internet.

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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