The Vatican on trial

The trial of the pope's former butler and the letter of a senior archbishop are but two episodes revealing the deep dysfunction at the heart of Pope Benedict's city-state, says Michael Walsh.

Michael Walsh
8 October 2012

Pope Benedict XVI's former butler Paolo Gabriele (who would have thought the pope had a butler?), has been found guilty in a Vatican court and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment on a charge of "aggravated theft" of the pontiff's personal correspondence. The verdict, delivered on 6 October 2012 by the three judges who oversaw the trial - held under an Italian legal code dating from the 19th century - turned out to be half of what the prosecution had requested.

Much fuss was made of the Vatican’s prohibition against filming the proceedings. What ought to be of more concern is the fact that the pope had multiple roles in this case: for the same figure who was robbed of his confidential papers also appointed the judges and headed the prosecution. Benedict XVI, in other words, is at once judge, jury, and victim. But in the dictatorship which is the Vatican city-state, that is the way things work.

In reality the trial was a sideshow. The main event was the publication of the documents stolen by Gabriele (in an act allegedly abetted by a computer expert from the Vatican’s secretariat of state, Claudio Sciarpelletti). Some of the material purloined has already appeared in an ironically entitled book, His Holiness (2012) by the journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi. Vatican-watchers who scrabbled for a copy soon discovered that perhaps the most damaging item published therein had been known about for some time.

This was a letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the deputy head of the Vatican city-state's government, in March 2011, after his proposed appointment as nuncio (papal ambassador) to the United States was announced. Archbishop Viganò warned Pope Benedict that his removal from his current post might well be misinterpreted as an attempt to put an end to the financial reforms he had implemented in the Vatican, which had turned an annual substantial loss into a considerable profit - conducted, moreover, with an insistence on transparency and accountability. There were those in the Vatican, said Viganò, who did not like any of it.

Viganò’s letter, and the other documents brought to light in Nuzzi’s book, revealed the infighting at the upper echelons of the Holy See. They portrayed the Vatican as a deeply dysfunctional organisation, riven by mutual hostilities. In contrast to the overly bureaucratic tendencies of many governments, the Vatican appeared not bureaucratic enough but rather too dependent on personalities and not enough on systems - above all in the promotion or demotion of staff. The evidence of what might be thought inappropriate patronage includes the appointment by the Cardinal secretary of state of members of his own religious order to senior positions in the Vatican’s internal hierarchy.

A senior figure in the Vatican’s administration confirmed to me that the body does not work as it should. When the Arab spring burst upon the world in the early weeks of 2011, he said, it might have been expected that the secretariat of state would call in all papal envoys from the middle east for consultation, but that did not happen. It must be presumed that papal policy towards the Arab world is made within the secretariat without the benefit of advice from those on the ground.

A dark time

Pope Benedict's trip to Lebanon on 14-16 September 2012 was hailed by the Vatican as a triumph, and might then be taken as evidence that any internal policy dysfunction is a mirage, or else irrelevant. It is also the case that every papal journey abroad is greeted by papal spokesmen as a triumph, so little can be read from their headline view.

What is true is that many Shi'a Muslims, men and women, turned out to greet him alongside the country’s substantial Christian community. The pope preached peace and reconciliation, and condemned the violence in neighbouring Syria, which carries the permanent danger of rolling over into Lebanon itself. There is little else that he could have done, or said. The call, much heard in the first years of Benedict's pontificate, for Christians to be granted the same degree of religious liberty in Islamic countries as Islam enjoys in western nations, appears now to be on the backburner, partly perhaps because the Catholic church has over the years managed to open churches in some part of the Arab world.

Soon after the pope's return to Rome, a different controversy arose when Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch (i.e., the head of Lebanon’s indigenous Christian church, which is in communion with Rome) demanded - together with Muslim leaders - that the defamation of religion be made a criminal offence worldwide. The patriarch must have known that this is contrary to the Vatican’s own stance at the United Nations, where it has observer status. The Vatican opposes such a law in part because it realises there is absolutely no chance of it being accepted by many of the UN's member-states, but also in part because it is afraid that the creation of a "crime" of religious defamation could cause more harm than good: blasphemy laws have, for instance, been used with sometimes deadly effect against Christians, mostly Catholics, in Pakistan.

John Allen, a long-standing reporter on Vatican affairs for the Kansas City-based weekly the National Catholic Reporter, has claimed that some 150,000 Christians die every year because of their faith. It is, assuming it can be confirmed, a staggering statistic. Were they inhabitants of a single country, persecuted by a tyrannical government, there would be urgent debate in political capitals and protests at the United Nations. Perhaps these things do not happen because, suggests Allen, Christians have traditionally been seen as the oppressor rather than the oppressed, which may be a legacy of the Crusades.

I was struck recently by a photograph of a young Muslim woman waving a placard which said "Christians out of Muslim Lands". It is relevant to recall that the territory which the Arab horsemen invaded in the year 631 was for the most part already occupied by Christians. The descendants of those Christians still live in their ancestral homelands, but are steadily being driven out. The patriarchs of these communities are vociferous in their protests, but the numbers of their communities are small and getting smaller by the day, and therefore carry little weight.

The Vatican, which does carry weight in the world, has meanwhile prosecuted a butler for theft in a vain attempt to save face.

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