Signs of uncertainty not in short supply at Vatican


“JOSEPH RATZINGER should never have become pope. It could not happen. According to the unwritten rules of papal conclaves such a ‘divisive’ figure would never be able to command the two-thirds vote necessary to be elected.”

Those are the opening words of a new book, Ratzinger, A Pontificate In Crisis, by Marco Politi, the veteran Vatican commentator who in an interview as early as November 2004 had indicated the then Cardinal Ratzinger as a “secret candidate” to become the next pope. In his book, (not yet available in English) Politi outlines the background to his interview with Ratzinger.

He points out that he had originally issued a formal request for the interview in 2001. However, it was only in November 2004, at a time when John Paul II’s chronic ill-health was all too obvious, that the then senior Vatican spokesman, Opus Dei member, Joaquín Navarro-Valls confirmed the interview.

Politi suggests that during the summer of 2004, an inner Holy See cabal of ultra-conservative, Hispanic Curia cardinals had decided that “God’s Rottweiller” Ratzinger was the cardinal who could best defend their hardline conservative views. The cardinals in question included the Colombians, Darío Castrillón Hoyos and Alfonso López Trujillo, the Spaniard Julián Herranz and the Chilean Jorge Medina Estévez. The idea of the interview with Politi, then the Vatican correspondent for influential left-wing daily La Repubblicawas to “promote” their man.

The rest, of course, is history. The best-laid plans came to fruition with the April 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI, a Curia figure who for most of the previous 20 years had not even figured on the list of papabili (future popes) drawn up by Vatican commentators.

Half way through the seventh year of Benedict’s pontificate, Politi now makes an intriguing point. Those who promoted Ratzinger had very clear ideas about how to get him elected but about little else. For example, they had never asked themselves the question of just how effective or competent the now 84-year-old Benedict would be not just as spiritual leader but also as political leader of the 1.1 billion-strong Catholic Church.

When Politi speaks of a “crisis” in this pontificate, he is referring to a “disoriented Curia”, many of whom, off the record, argue that Vatican ship of state is currently drifting around without a compass, a helm or even a determined helmsman:“If to govern means confronting problems head on, looking for solutions and creating the best conditions for the development of the community you lead, as well as reforming the organisation for which you are responsible, making it more prepared for the challenges of the future, then it is obvious that Benedict XVI’s Vatican shows all the signs of uncertainty about strategic policies,” he writes.

In recent years, there has been no shortage of these “signs of uncertainty”. Leaving aside the controversial issue of the Vatican’s handling of the sex abuse crisis, there is a long, uncomfortable list of political “incidents” that should have set the alarm bells ringing.

These incidents include: (1) The seemingly anti-Islamic remarks in Benedict’s September 2006, Regensburg address; (2) His January 2009 re-integration of the excommunicated “Lefebvre” bishop Richard Williamson, a known Holocaust negationist; (3) The “condom” remarks vis-a-vis HIV Aids on the way to Cameroon in March 2009; (4) Church appointments such as those of Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus to Warsaw in December 2006 and of Bishop Gerhard Wagner in Linz, Austria in March 2009. Both men had to be “resigned” even before they could take up their new appointments because it turned out that the former had been a collaborator with Polish secret services during the Communist era, while the latter’s unorthodox views – he was on record as having called Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a “divine punishment” as well as expressing the view that the “Harry Potter” books corrupt young minds – so outraged his fellow priests that they effectively blocked the appointment.

In the past, there has been a tendency in Vatican circles to downplay these “incidents” by calling them “communication errors”. Politi argues, however, that they express the confused “stop-go” governance of this closed, isolated and disconnected pontificate where information does not flow freely, where there is no internal debate and where it is sometimes hard to identify the “line” on key issues such as the sex abuse crisis or relations with Jews or with Islam.

To illustrate his point, Politi highlights the “minimalist” style of Benedict’s government. The College of Cardinals has met in consistory only three times in the last six years. Collegiate meetings of Vatican heads of department take place just twice a year. Papal nuncios get to meet Benedict only at the beginning and end of a new diplomatic mission.

Even the infamous ad limina visits made by bishops to Rome every five years have been reduced to a collective address by the Pope. In the past, John Paul II made it his business to have at least a brief chat with each bishop, on his own. Likewise, while John Paul used meal times for meetings and information gathering with a wide range of Vatican, church and lay advisers, Benedict keeps his own company. Politi points out, too, that Benedict the theologian spends a lot of his time writing and thinking about his books.

The result, suggests Politi, is a Pope who is indeed increasingly “disconnected” if not necessarily “dysfunctional”, a Pope who can go weeks without a face-to-face meeting with his senior spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, and who relies on a cursory glance at the Vatican’s press clippings service for information.Is it any surprise, concludes Politi, that in this pontificate, the Holy See is not the world player it once was?