The Vatican has been criticized for its so-called PR “gaffes” in recent years, but what lies at the heart of these errors, and how can they be corrected?
Massimo Franco, a veteran political correspondent for Italy’s daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, tries to get to the bottom of the problems in a new book called C’era Una Volta Un Vaticano (Once Upon a Time, There Was a Vatican). Although a former columnist for the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire, he gives more of a political take on the Vatican than perhaps one of faith, but his views could be useful when it comes to possible — and what some say is much needed — reform of the Roman Curia. Franco spoke with Rome correspondent Edward Pentin March 15 in Rome.
Could you tell us more about the essence of your new book concerning the Vatican and its internal governance?
I think there has been a problem of a lack of strategy since the very beginning of this pontificate, because everyone in the conclave was overwhelmed by the figure of John Paul II. When Benedict XVI was elected, the fact that it was a very quick election, and that he felt himself to be old, meant there couldn’t be any strategy in building up a new system of governance in the Vatican. This [reform] has also proved to be quite difficult because the whole [Vatican] structure was shaped by the Cold War. And yet, during the first years of Benedict XVI and in the last years of John Paul II, the world profoundly changed, and all the framework of the Cold War was over. So there was a disconnect between the new world paradigm — a cultural and geopolitical paradigm — and the way the Vatican went on operating.
You mention in the book that a kind of “implosion” of the Vatican has been taking place. What do you mean by that?
It is an implosion of a Vatican, not of the Vatican. It’s the implosion of the kind of governance that used to exist. For example, when the Berlin Wall fell, you had Western secret services, and maybe Russian as well, prepared to deal with and cope with a certain kind of world. When this world wasn’t there any more, they went on operating in the same way as in the past. And yet the world had moved on.
The same is true of the Vatican. For instance, what happened with the [sexual-abuse] scandal: It wasn’t caused by Vatican problems; it’s the consequence of the fact that the situation has changed. In the past, during the Cold War, sex-abuse scandals were perceived as a possible sin, but not a crime. But if there is a “secularization of sin,” it becomes a crime. So public opinion in the West cannot tolerate the fact that the Church deals with these things as though they are just sins. They are crimes, and so Western public opinion wants them to react in that way.
In this way, you see how the Vatican lags behind, because its first reaction was very slow and very confused. There wasn’t a strategy because they couldn’t understand what was going on. It’s the same with the so-called gaffes of the Vatican.
The gaffes are not due to problems of external communications. They come from within, from the fact that the information chain inside the Vatican doesn’t work anymore because there is a sort of short-circuiting. Regarding [SSPX bishop] Williamson, the Pope had to admit he didn’t have enough information about him. That was paradoxical.
And, yet, the Vatican has operated like this for a long time — and until recently didn’t have so many perceived gaffes. What has changed?
The Vatican has to rethink the internal processes of information. The first one, the most superficial, is an incapacity to convey the right message. But there is a deeper problem, which is elaboration of the message. I mean that the problem is not just the way you communicate but what you communicate, and I think there is a cultural confusion on themes like pedophilia or power struggles inside the Curia. You never saw cardinals pointing at each other [publicly] like Cardinals Schönborn and Sodano did last year. So this is very confusing and astonishing for Catholic public opinion — and not only for them.
In the book you link the problems facing the Vatican with the global economic crisis, which began in the United States. Is there really a connection?
I don’t know if there’s a connection, but there is a very strange and striking coincidence, because if we think of Sept. 11 and the financial bubble of Wall Street of 2008, we can see a strange coincidence between that explosion and the explosion of the sex-abuse scandal. I think we can say, therefore, that, as we have seen that the U.S. unipolarism, in terms of military strategy and the economy, is over, so we could say that the moral unipolarism of the Vatican on ethics is also over. These two collapses correspond to one another. So, I think it’s a reflection of the decline of the West, the primacy of the West, both on a strategic and moral level.
But the Vatican isn’t just the West. It represents the central governance of the universal Church.
The Vatican is not the West, but it has represented the values of the West throughout the world. Of course, it’s also true that the United States is not the West either, and yet it has wanted to shape democracy all over the world. But, in the same way, and not by chance, the Pope created a pontifical council to re-evangelize the West; he took the name of Benedict because of a very deep perception that the crisis starts from the West and victory will be either won or lost in the West. So there is a coincidence, a strategic unipolarism. There’s a financial unipolarism which explodes and a moral unipolarism that explodes with the sex-abuse scandals.
So you see the international prestige of the Vatican in some ways declining?
The Vatican’s international agenda is very much a focus of discussion. It’s not as focused as it was just 10 to 15 years ago.
I had a very strange experience recently. I met about 30 ambassadors accredited to the Holy See from all over the world in order to discuss the Vatican in international politics. And during these discussions, some of them admitted that they didn’t know if, in 10 years’ time, there would still be an embassy to the Holy See for their countries because the Vatican doesn’t transmit an international agenda anymore.
One of them told me he felt as if he were the last ambassador in Venice in 1797 — the time when the city was occupied and destroyed by Napoleon. So there is a perception that the Vatican, on the international level, is losing influence.
But could this simply be part of what Benedict XVI has described as the Church becoming made up of “creative minorities”?
Benedict XVI deserves a lot of credit for this — he foresaw what was going to happen, and he created this expression “creative minority.” The problem is that, so far, first of all in the West, not many people see Catholicism as a minority — although, actually, it is. Secondly, “creative minority” is a good phrase, but, so far, it’s just a minority. So it’s a big question if it can become a creative minority.
Can this be applied to the Vatican?
The Vatican is very much looking inward. There is a strong Curia and a sort of disconnect between the Curia, Rome and the national conferences of bishops.
Some have said there’s too much patronage in the Curia, too many favors given to friends and associates, rather than based on merit. Is this a major part of the problem?
There are two problems at the moment. The first is that the Church is split, so it’s as though the conclave never finished. Under the leadership of Benedict XVI, factions have fought each other very strongly, compared to the past. Secondly, there is a problem of patronage. For instance, during the last consistory, it was very Eurocentric and Curiacentric: The new cardinals were friends of friends, and that’s because of a lack of strategy.
The Pope likes to choose friends, as they are people he already knows and trusts.
Yes, this Pope is an intellectual, a very respected man, but he sees that there isn’t much time to go forward. He believes he was forced to choose people he knew, on whom he could rely. And that is not exactly the best way to deal with as complex an organization as the Vatican, in this period of speed and precision.
So what is the way forward? Should the Curia become more international, for example?
The Curia is already internationalized. The problem is a change of mentality, not the national identity of the officials. I think the Church will be forced to change. Indeed, the risk could be not that a Vatican is over, but that the Vatican could face big difficulties.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.