Saturday, February 23, 2013

Vatiwar: For the Italians, Retreat Week Becomes "Fight Club"

Under normal circumstances, the first emotion at the end of a pontificate keeps Roman tensions on a low boil – at least, publicly – as the transition wends through the grief-stricken days of the death of a Pope.

This time, however, the circumstances are anything but normal, and against the backdrop of B16's impending resignation, the "blackout" week of the Pope's Lenten retreat has made for an open festival of brutta figura spilling out from behind the Vatican walls.

In light of the pontiff's historic departure from office in five days, the handover to come was always going to be markedly different from its predecessors. Still, it's fair to say that what's ensued so far is more than anyone bargained for... even if, the natives being themselves, it's not exactly a complete surprise.

Beyond the traditional stream of speculation on supposed "contenders" tipped to emerge from a Conclave that's still at least two weeks – and worlds more maneuvering – away, over recent days the Italian press has blown open long-simmering tensions at the Home Office, all of which serve to confirm the longstanding sense among many key churchmen that the principal task awaiting B16's successor is to get a grip on his Curia after years of embarrassing spectacles which have caused damage both to the departing pontiff and the wider church.

While the week began with two separate instances of cardinals publicly calling out confreres by name in on-record interviews, the "dirty pool" culminated with pieces on Wednesday and Thursday claiming to reveal a centerpiece charge of the top-level commission charged with investigating last year's "Vatileaks" fiasco – namely, the existence of a high-level group of gay officials in the Curia whose behavior allegedly allowed them to be "blackmailed" by outside sources. For good measure, the reports implied that the discovery helped spur Benedict's decision to resign the papacy voluntarily for the first time since 1294.

As has been widely noted, leaving office in life is something Joseph Ratzinger has been weighing for several years – even several months ago, one op long aware of his thinking spoke of being convinced that Benedict felt it a "duty" to transition the church into an age where modern medicine allows the body to outlast the vigor the modern papacy requires. In any event, the storm around the story was arguably exacerbated by the Curia's own devices, first when, in the wake of Thursday's piece in Italy's largest daily, La Repubblica, a leading figure cited as part of the supposed ring – the Holy See's "deputy foreign minister," Msgr Ettore Balestrero, 46 – was suddenly shipped out of Rome yesterday, being named an archbishop and apostolic nuncio to Colombia, a top-tier posting in the Vatican diplomatic corps.

Having served since 2009 as Undersecretary for Relations with States – one of the top five officials of the Secretariat of State – the Balestrero eruption followed by his swift promotion is likely to see a new round of fingers cast in the direction of Benedict's "Vice-Pope," Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, who's already shouldered the lion's share of scorn over the Curia's debacles of governance in recent years.

Despite being a ordained a priest of Rome, it's notable that Balestrero was born in Genoa – the heart of Bertone's Northern Italian base, where the cardinal served as archbishop before returning to the Vatican as Benedict's second-in-command in 2006 (below). 

Based in Bogotá, whose 3.5 million Catholics form one of the largest dioceses in the global church, the Colombia posting is regarded as a deluxe assignment in the Corps, one normally given to veteran papal ambassadors after they've weathered more daunting situations. Since 1950, only one other first-time Nuncio has been named there – and that figure, the Spaniard Eduardo Martínez Somalo, eventually became a Vatican cardinal, serving as Camerlengo in 2005 following the death of Blessed John Paul II. 

As with most other Latin American countries given their Catholic heritage, the Vatican's representative to Colombia serves ex officio as Dean of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to its government.

Over recent decades, five other mission-chiefs at Bogotá have subsequently become cardinals, and another, the Italian Archbishop Beniamino Stella, currently oversees the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Holy See's diplomatic school. By contrast to all these, Balestrero's predecessor as foreign undersecretary, Pietro Parolin, was sent to the significantly more charged turf of Venezuela for his first nuncio-level assignment.

All that said, the 11th-hour move has the practical effect of removing the besieged monsignor from the Roman scene for an open-ended period until things "simmer down." Before departing for South America, however, the new nuncio must be ordained as a bishop – an event which is likely to take place in rapid order, perhaps even within days, and is almost certain to take on an immensely higher profile than usual given the controversy.

In an unusually irate response to the swirling innuendo, this morning saw a statement emerge from the Secretariat of State which slammed unspecified "news reports abound which are often unverified or not verifiable, or even false," saying they cause "damage to people and institutions," going on to insinuate that the press was attempting to influence the papal election.

"Over the centuries, the cardinals have faced multiple forms of pressure exerted on the individual voters and the same College," the statement said, "with the aim of conditioning decisions, to bend them to a political or worldly logic.

"If in the past the it was the so-called superpowers, namely states, who sought to condition the election of the Pope in their favor, today there is an attempt to apply the weight of public opinion, often on the basis of assessments that fail to capture the spiritual aspect of this moment in the life of the church."

Reinforcing the thin patience with which lead officials are taking the scuttlebutt, in his weekly editorial on Vatican Radio, the Holy See's normally genteel lead spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, lamented that while the church won't be saddled with burying a pontiff in this transition, "we have not been spared another test: that of the multiplication of the pressures and considerations that are foreign to the spirit with which the church would like to live this period of waiting and preparation. 

"There is no lack, in fact, of those who seek to profit from the moment of surprise and disorientation of the spiritually naive to sow confusion and to discredit the church and its governance, making recourse to old tools, such as gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander," Lombardi said. 

"Those who consider money, sex and power before all else and are used to reading diverse realities from these perspectives, are unable to see anything else, even in the Church, because they are unable to gaze toward the heights or descend to the depths in order to grasp the spiritual dimensions and reasons of existence. This results in a description of the Church and of many of its members that is profoundly unjust."

Given the number and scope of incidents on Bertone's watch – a long drip which culminated with the "Vatileaks" torrent – the future of the 78 year-old cardinal after the Conclave will prove a key indicator of how the next pontiff intends to deal with the governing behemoth he'll inherit. Due to the post's importance in both overseeing the Vatican's administrative apparatus and conducting the Holy See's diplomatic relations, recent pontificates have made the helm of State – the Vatican's de facto "prime minister" – among a new Pope's first round of major personnel moves.

In an interview shortly after Benedict's 11 February announcement of his intent to resign, the departing Pope's closest ally in his native Germany – Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne – spoke of urging the pontiff to fire Bertone several years ago as the crises began to build, only to be rebuffed.

Far from the office down the hall, meanwhile, there'll soon be another closely-watched sign of a new Pope's approach to the shop. 

Having been sent across the Atlantic for different reasons – namely, as a "punishment" for protesting the widespread mismanagement he found as the Vatican's "vice-mayor" – a successor to Benedict who means business would likely send that message by recalling Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò from Washington in short order to give the 72 year-old prelate a key Curial post. 

While the Vatican lifer initially lamented his "exile" as nuncio to the US – and, according to reports, repeatedly sought to block the transfer before it was announced in October 2011 – Viganò has since thrown himself intensely into life on these shores, scoring very high marks from the nation's bishops, who've often gone out of their way to speak of the prelate's exceptional level of sensitivity and dedication at the task.