Can the Vatican Survive the Age of Digital Media?

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Strange things have been happening at the Vatican this year. Beginning in January, documents written by high-level figures in the Catholic Church began finding their way into the Italian press, many of the letters to the pope denouncing instances of corruption and complaining about the direction and management of the Church.

When a book full of leaked documents, Sua Santità (His Holiness), was published in late May, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of arresting the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, a humble but trusted member of the papal household, and announced that officials had found numerous papal documents at Gabriele’s apartment within the Vatican. At the same time, the Vatican Bank, under investigation for money laundering (charges the Vatican denies), fired its president, a respected Catholic banker, listing among the reasons for his dismissal allegations that sounded a lot like leaking: “Failure to provide any formal explanation for the dissemination of documents last known to be in the President’s possession.” Immediately after his firing, the former bank president hired his own bodyguard service and wrote a private memorandum to the pope, which he wished to disseminate “in case something should happen to him.”

Power struggles and scandal are nothing new in the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI, for one, was accused of poisoning his enemies and sleeping with his daughter, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. But until now the pope had been able to count on the loyalty and discretion of his inner circle and a hermetically sealed culture of silence, discretion, and secrecy that has often been compared with that of the Kremlin at the height of Soviet power. Now the last and most ancient of the world’s absolute monarchies is suddenly in the fishbowl culture of the 21st century, where the most-trivial and the most-important details alike become transparent.

The job of managing this transition from secrecy to openness has fallen to Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s official spokesman, a Jesuit priest who wears a uniform of simple black pants and a black shirt with a white collar. When I met him this summer in Rome at the end of another long day at Vatican Radio, he had the deeply exhausted look of a man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. A thoughtful and kindly-looking man who trained as a mathematician, Lombardi now finds himself in the much messier world of media, in which appearance and reality, rumor and fact can all get mixed up in an impossible tangle.

For an organization famous historically for keeping its internal business as private as possible, the Vatican has gone out of its way since the scandal broke this spring to be as open and accountable as possible. Having been embarrassed by constant leaking, the Vatican has clearly decided to go on the counteroffensive, releasing information in anticipation of events so that it is not constantly caught off guard by embarrassing revelations. Lombardi has been giving nonstop press briefings since Paolo Gabriele was arrested on May 24; at an August briefing, he even took the extraordinary step of making public the indictment papers against Gabriele. The Vatican promised that his trial, set to begin September 29, would be made public (immediately after the May arrest, all the pretrial documents were posted on the Vatican press office’s Web site). Also indicted but on lesser charges was a computer technician, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who is seen as a minor accomplice in the misappropriation of documents.

Suddenly, the word transparency, which was hardly pronounced during the first two millennia of the Catholic Church’s history, is on everyone’s lips at the Vatican, in what amounts to a kind of Copernican revolution — an attempt on the part of an essentially medieval institution to join the Internet age. One medieval pope described himself as “the judge of all men who can be judged by none.” The current Vatican has begun in recent years to accept, painfully, that this is no longer the case. If it does not want to be defined by others, the Church must respond to and even court public opinion, using modern media to shape its message.

Since he took the job as papal press officer, in July 2006, Lombardi has been dealing with one public-relations disaster after another. Just two months into the job and a year into the term of Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, Lombardi found himself in Germany, Ratzinger’s birthplace where the pope was about to deliver a speech that contained this sentence: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” The phrase was a learned quotation of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor in a long address on faith and reason, but journalists examining advance copies of the speech could see that, coming out of the mouth of a contemporary pope, the quote would seem like a frontal assault on Islam. They warned Lombardi, but the pope went ahead with his prepared speech, and a public firestorm followed, exactly as predicted. Then there was the 2009 fiasco in which the pope lifted the excommunication of four right-wing bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Lombardi had to endure 2010, known at the Vatican as the annus horribilis, during which hardly a week went by without new shocking revelations of child abuse by ordained priests and, perhaps far worse, complicity among higher-ups in the Church principally concerned with covering up the scandal, silencing victims, and transferring predator priests rather than removing them from positions in which they could do further harm. With some justification, people at the Vatican felt that Benedict was getting a bad rap: he was the first pope to deal somewhat forthrightly with the pedophilia issue, and the worst abuses had occurred during the reign of his predecessor, the soon-to-be-sainted John Paul II. Yet Lombardi had to stand up day after day and take his lumps, as the crisis risked defining Benedict’s papacy and seriously undermined the Church’s credibility.

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Lombardi gets high marks from almost everyone in the Vatican press corps for his honorability, honesty, and integrity, but as he himself acknowledges, the Vatican has not ever had a media strategy: the pope does as he sees fit, and Lombardi tries to explain his words or actions after the fact.

Victims of priestly sexual abuse have their own Web sites and can organize online; copies of court decisions, grand-jury reports, and compromising documents make their way around the world instantly.

And Lombardi speaks for an elderly and not particularly charismatic pope: a 78-year-old theologian at the time of his election, now 85 and increasingly infirm; a scholar with more-solitary habits than his predecessor. Lombardi is also dealing with a new media environment. Dozens of Vatican news Web sites named Whispers in the Loggia, Vatican Insider, and the like, pick up and report on Vatican scuttlebutt that traditional media rarely, if ever, did. Victims of priestly sexual abuse have their own Web sites and can organize online; copies of court decisions, grand-jury reports, and compromising documents make their way around the world instantly.

In this environment, not having a media strategy is no longer a viable option — a reality the Vatican implicitly recognized this summer when it appointed a journalist, Greg Burke, the Fox News correspondent in Rome (and a member of the Catholic religious order Opus Dei), as the Vatican’s director of communications, a position that never existed before. It is one of a series of decisive moves the Vatican has made in response to “Vati-leaks”: The new director of the Vatican Bank took the unusual step of inviting journalists to the highly secretive institution’s offices and discussed the intentions to comply with modern banking norms. Father Lombardi began his regular press briefings — another novelty. During the past year, Benedict opened a Twitter account. Moreover, since the Vati-leaks scandal broke, the pope has been calling in a range of Church leaders for much wider and more regular consultation. The scandal has clearly served as a wake-up call: a sign that the pope is trying hard to regain control of a Church that has begun to seem badly adrift. The pope has even made some effort to seek out the views of people outside the Roman curia — the Vatican equivalent of going beyond the Beltway.

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The Vati-leaks scandal is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there is the mystery element: Did the butler do it? And if so, why? Did he have accomplices? Were they inside or outside the Church? Then there are the contents of the documents themselves, which provide a glimpse into the exercise of power within the normally closed world of the Vatican’s highest levels.

“One way to understand this situation is to think of the Vatican as a medieval or Renaissance court,” says Father John Wauck, an American priest with the Opus Dei movement and a former student of Renaissance history. It is a world in which one person, the pope, makes the important decisions and people jockey for the ear of that one person.

The scandal has strained some of the odd contradictions of the Vatican: it is the smallest independent nation in the world, with a territory of 109 acres and a population of more than 800 people, and yet it is nexus of a transnational Church present in virtually every nation, with an estimated 1.2 billion adherents. It is thus simultaneously one of the largest and most important entities in the world and one of the smallest.

But is a tiny medieval court capable of governing an institution of such great scope and complexity in the current age? “I wouldn’t bet against it,” Father Wauck said. “Find me another institution that has lasted 2,000 years.”

The Vati-leaks scandal has accentuated the already serious problem of the chasm between the Church and its people, between the hierarchy composed almost exclusively of elderly white men in their 60s and 70s living in the isolation within the Vatican walls and the 1 billion Catholics in the world contending with much more basic, day-to-day problems of life and of faith.

The anxiety in the Vatican in the wake of Vati-leaks is palpable. One interview subject insisted that I remove my computer and my tape recorder from his office before we began talking for fear, I suppose, of being surreptitiously recorded. Another source insisted on the phone that he knew nothing about Vati-leaks, but agreed to see me if we might discuss other topics — then, as soon as we sat down, he launched into a highly knowledgeable discussion of the scandal. There are rumors that Vatican security — after all of these embarrassing revelations — is at an all-time high. People are nervous about communicating anything of substance on the phone or through email. “Remember, you can’t quote me by name!” one priest told me. “If you do, they’d send me to Central Africa tomorrow!”

Although there is much we still don’t know about Vati-leaks, several things are already quite clear. Among the likely speakers at the trial are high Church officials who testified for and against Gabriele, who in the indictment papers are identified simply as X or Y. The court proceedings should give us a look at the inside workings of the papal court in a trial that appears to be without precedent at the Vatican. “The Vatican tribunal is open and has handled other cases, a small theft or something, but nothing of this kind that I’m aware of,” Lombardi told me in a phone interview in September. The tribunal is likely to deal in a circumscribed fashion with the legal position of Paolo Gabriele. But the mere fact of a public trial is an expression of the Vatican’s desire to show its new spirit of openness. As for showing the inner workings of the Vatican itself, the documents may tell us much more.

No one disputes the authenticity of the documents themselves. No one I spoke with believes that the butler acted principally on his own initiative. And no one believes that he was simply being bribed or manipulated by members of the press into stealing documents. If the press had been controlling this operation, you would expect lots of juicy details about the pope and his personal life: his favorite TV programs, whether or not he falls asleep in meetings or has to wear adult diapers at night. “But there is none of this among the documents released, in fact nothing against the pope at all,” one priest told me. “This suggests that Paolo Gabriele did not think he was acting against the pope, to whom he is very attached. The documents released were almost certainly chosen by someone — or a group of people — highly knowledgeable within the church, for they all pertain to church policy.” Gianluigi Nuzzi, the principal journalist who broke the story in Sua Santità, insists that he spoke with several Vatican officials, not merely one, and that it was they, not he, who took the initiative. The other journalist who has published the most leaked documents, Marco Lillo of the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (The Daily Fact), told me the same thing.

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.”

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

Did the butler do it? And if so, why? Did he have accomplices? Were they inside or outside the Church?

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 astheirs,” 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.

Alessandro 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 bungaorgies 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 Romanofor 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.

“Remember, you can’t quote me by name!” one priest told me. “If you do, they’d send me to Central Africa tomorrow!”

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 calledThe 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.

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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.

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 ofThe 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.

Tony 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.”

“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?”

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.

– September 28, 2012

Published at The Atlantic


Why the Vati-Leaks Trial Did Nothing for Vatican Transparency

Though opened to a few journalists, the trial offered mere hints of what’s actually going on behind closed doors. The accused was effectively muzzled. Since posting our article on the “Vati-leaks” case, Paolo Gabriele, the Pope’s former butler, was convicted by a Vatican court of misappropriating papal documents and leaking them to the Italian press. Almost... CONTINUE READING