In a corner of the Sistine Chapel, below Michelangelo’s hell, is a door to the little chamber they call ‘the room of tears’. Some painter-decorators are in there, frantically doing the place up. That’s because, in a matter of days, a new Pope will be led into the room. According to tradition, at that moment, as he first contemplates the magnitude of his role, he will weep.
A myth, you might think. But we can be sure that the next Supreme Pontiff — whoever he is — will have plenty to sob about. Since Benedict XVI’s resignation two weeks ago, each day seems to have brought yet more bad news. Scandal is swarming around the upcoming papal conclave like a Biblical plague.
There’s the poor old Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned on Monday after reports of ‘inappropriate acts’ with fellow priests. There are the two American cardinals, Roger Mahoney and Timothy Dolan, facing renewed accusations that they protected paedophile priests in their dioceses.
And then the big one: the theory that the real reason Benedict resigned was not ill-health, but because he was so appalled by the findings of an investigation he commissioned into the so-called ‘Vatileaks’ affair. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica has been publishing extraordinary claims that the 300-page Vatileaks dossier proves that Benedict was forced out by an ‘underground gay network’. Whispers of sodomy and bribery abound.
It all sounds a bit Da Vinci Code. Top-secret files, a homosexual clerical mafia, corruption, vice, rape — always, allegedly, ‘at the highest levels’. There’s enough in the papers for at least a dozen Dan Brown thrillers. And Vatican officials are quick to insist that it’s all wild speculation; secular journalists either don’t understand the church, or simply hate it. But then, almost unanimously, they add, ‘That doesn’t mean there’s not truth in it.’
In fact, some priests in Rome sound even more conspiracy mad. Traditionalists whisper of a ‘homo-heresy’ at the heart of the church: those evil gay perverts are at it again. Church liberals, meanwhile, spy an ultra-orthodox faction at work: malicious conservatives, they say, have been disappointed by Benedict’s gentility, and are hellbent on replacing him with a hammer of dissent.
The Italians call it dietrologia, the habit of looking for something sinister beneath the surface. Navigate your way through the gossip and counter-gossip, however, and a more plausible picture emerges. Benedict, being 85, probably did feel too old to go on; but it’s also likely that his decision was influenced by the Vatileaks fallout. Gay gangsters don’t run the Vatican; but there undoubtedly are corrupt figures within the church hierarchy who seem to think the strictures of the faith apply to the laity rather than to them. Long before Benedict’s election, it was widely agreed that the Roman curia — the Holy See’s equivalent of a civil service, which runs on a sort of feudal system of patronage and honour, and is often compared unfavourably to the mafia — needed to be reformed. Even pious Catholics said that John Paul II, because he was so old and sick, had given the curia too much power. Insiders blamed the then secretary of state — head of the curia — Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who they said undermined the integrity of the papacy with his canny command of power politics.
Many hoped that Pope Benedict — formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the enforcer, ‘God’s Rottweiler’ — would be the right man to stop the rot. But after eight years, even his biggest admirers admit that he lacked the political skill to be an effective administrator. Maybe he was too good to be good. He kept appointing and forgiving bad eggs. Rather than removing Cardinal Sodano, he made him dean of the College of Cardinals, where he still exerted considerable influence. A bigger mistake, perhaps, was to appoint his old ally Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as secretary of state. Rather than improving the curia, Bertone is generally thought to have made things worse. Several senior figures urged Benedict to bring in another secretary of state, but he declined. The result is that now, even if not all curial officials behave like Sopranos characters, a sense of crisis pervades in the Vatican.
What does all this mean for the next papacy? One thing is sure: the Cardinals – however much they say otherwise – will have been affected by the terrible headlines. And as they gather in Rome this month for the conclave, many of them must think that the Pope has not been well served by his officials.
Rumours that Benedict was going to give all papal electors a copy of the Vatileaks report have now been squashed. ‘The acts of this investigation,’ said a Vatican spokesman, ‘remain solely at the disposition of the new pope.’ But even if the dreaded dossier is not openly discussed, we can be sure that it will inform the discussions of the men in red hats. They will be looking to elect a man who, as well as being a great spiritual leader and theologian, also possesses enough grit to tackle the troublesome elements in the curia.
That might mean they pick an outsider to shake things up — a figure from the ‘global south’ where Catholicism is growing, rather than a European. But most of the Vatican insiders and well-connected Romans I’ve spoken to have suggested the opposite; that only an Italian would have what it takes. And the same name kept coming up, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He’s thought to know where the bodies are buried and have the right combination of personal holiness, toughness and media savvy. (He recently tweeted that he’d been listening to Amy Winehouse. ‘A quest for meaning emerges even from her distraught music and lyrics,’ he said, which makes you wonder about his grasp of English.)
It’s foolish to play predict-the-pope, though, as John O’Sullivan noted in this magazine two weeks ago. Moreover, everybody agrees that the next Vicar of Christ should not be chosen on the basis of his passport. But the Catholic church remains quite a Roman institution, even if it is universal. It’s been 35 years since the last Italian bishop of Rome, and some say that’s far too long. In that time, the curia has become more corrupt, not less. ‘If you think of the problem as a typically Italian one,’ says one English priest who’s lived in Rome for several years, ‘then maybe you need to have one of them in charge to fix it.’ Italians are all too familiar with scandals, secrets and mafia-style conspiracies. They know when to cry, too.