ANALYSIS: Vatican intrigue is age-old part of papal politics

The Vatican appears rocked by scandal and resignations just as church leaders must gear up to replace frail Pope Benedict XVI. But Vatican experts say papal transitions always generate intrigue.

(RNS) The Vatican appears rocked by scandalous rumors and resignations just as church leaders must gear up to replace frail Pope Benedict XVI with a closed-door conclave.

But Vatican experts say if you think the world’s largest nongovernmental institution is in unprecedented chaos right now, think again.

benedict XVI

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano presents the papal fisherman ring to Pope Benedict XVI at the new pope’s installation Mass. The fisherman’s ring bears an image of Peter, his boat and his net, which figure in two Gospel accounts of miraculous catches of fish. Benedict said that while fish die when removed from the sea, “in the mission of a fisher of men the reverse is true.” Photo by Grzegorz Galazka.

“Have you ever heard of the Borgias?” quipped professor Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department for Fordham University in New York. They were the larcenous, adulterous, murderous, election-rigging, Renaissance-era family of renaissance popes “who ran the papacy for decades like a private fief.”

For all the sex, money and power headlines wafting out of Rome these days, at least no one has been murdered. Infighting and innuendo, though, are ancient traditions that have moved into the bright lights of the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

“It’s high season for reporting chaos,” Tilley said. “There have always been rumors about money, power and sex in the Vatican. The question is not whether but how much. There’s a lot of smoke, right now. Is there a spark, yes. If it’s a fire, is it a small campfire or a five-alarm conflagration? No one knows.”

Fueling the flames:

  • Benedict, soon to turn 86, is the first pope in 600 years to say he doesn’t have the strength to carry on and step down. On Monday, he changed the rules for picking his successor to speed up the vote in March. That throws the election speculation into overdrive. “All the factions in the Vatican in Italy and in the church beyond that are pulling out all the stops to try to influence the conclave,” Tilley said.

    Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia photo courtesy Gavin Scott.

    Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia photo courtesy Gavin Scott.

  • Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s top Catholic churchman, announced Monday (Feb. 25) he’s skipping the conclave, just as his retirement was abruptly accepted when news accounts broke accusing O’Brien of “inappropriate behavior” with priests. The Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, says that move raises suspicion. “The single most important thing a cardinal ever does in his life is vote for the pope,” so O’Brien recusing himself raises all kinds of questions, he said.
  • Last week, Italian newspaper La Repubblica, leaning on unnamed sources, touted a secret report by three cardinals that purportedly revealed sexual shenanigans among gay priests and officials at the Curia, the bureaucracy of the church. Reese discounts the Italian media reports as no more credible than unedited blogs. “Sometimes they get it right and sometimes wrong and sometimes it seems like their writers came from creative writing classes, not journalism. … Where’s the beef? Where are the facts?”
  • Last year, the Curia was embarrassed by a raft of disclosures in a stolen-documents scandal, dubbed Vatileaks. The documents portrayed the Curia as rife with personal rivalries and concerns about financial mismanagement.

Bringing 21st-century management and transparency to Vatican operations is high among the qualities many Vatican observers cite for the next pope. But that would require a veteran of church politics with a strong base in Rome, and could tilt the election away from candidates from Latin America, Africa and Asia, regions where most Catholics now live.

Choosing the next pope has always been a matter of geopolitical and personal intrigue. Tilley describes how, in 2005 when Benedict was chosen, rumors floated that a contender had depression, others were in ill health or inappropriately involved in politics.

“At least some of the rumors had the rough validity of the controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate,” Tilley said.

David Gibson, author of a biography of Benedict and Vatican specialist for Religion News Service, said the pope’s retirement — without the trappings of a funeral or mourning period — has given cardinals the freedom “to say things they couldn’t say before.”

last judgement

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement inside the Sistine Chapel. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (

“They are facing something like an entire presidential campaign in less than a month. You have to get your views out there and make sure the men you consider voting for don’t have skeletons in their closet,” Gibson said.

Ultimately, the world outside the conclave may never know how much today’s upheavals will affect the 115 cardinals now expected in Rome to vote for the next pope.

Once the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel, with all electronic communications cut off and votes scheduled twice a day, “all this fuss and bother, the din outside will have little effect on them,” Tilley said.

“They are going to eat and pray and vote. They’ll talk to each other and they’ll talk to God and, in between, they’ll just be bored.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)