The Divine Farce
If the recent report from the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is true than it turns out that the first Pope to resign his post in almost six hundred years did so, at least in part, due to the existence of a faction of gay Vatican officials being blackmailed by outsiders of a ‘worldly influence’. This sordid affair apparently emerged from an investigation by a three Cardinal team that Pope Benedict XVI set up to look into the leaking of documents by the Pope’s own butler, Paolo Gabriele, who saw leaking the Pope’s personal correspondence to an investigative journalist as a noble act meant to spur reform in an organization dominated by infighting and corruption.
Just last month tourists visiting the shops inside the Vatican were prevented from using credit cards to buy tickets and souvenirs after the Bank of Italy found that the Vatican Bank’s safeguards against money laundering do not meet international standards. The Vatican Bank, formally named the Institute for Works of Religion, holds $8 billion in assets among 33,000 accounts. The Vatican was able to sidestep EU banking rules by turning to a Swiss company to restore credit card payments.
Money laundering has loomed over the Vatican bank since before Robert Calvi, known as ‘God’s banker’ and head of Italy’s largest private bank (of which the Vatican was the largest shareholder), was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982. In 2010 Italian prosecutors seized $29 million from an account under suspicion and last year the bank had one of its accounts closed by JPMorgan Chase when Vatican bankers were unable to respond to requests for details about deposits into the account. Pope Benedict did issue a decree in December 2010 against money laundering but leaked documents show his weak efforts at reform were blunted by internal opposition.
Much of the largesse has been used in settling child abuse cases to the tune of more than $2 billion dollars since 1950. This week controversy swirls around Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, where the largest such settlement was reached, voting in the concave given his role in reshuffling accused priests. The same is true for Cardinal Sean Brady of Ireland and Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium. Meanwhile in Britain Cardinal Keith O’Brien announced his resignation amid accusations of inappropriate contact with younger priests. This leaves Britain without a voting cardinal.
All this under the watchful eye of a man who is proclaimed to be in some way infallible on matters of doctrine and morals; say what one will about the other masters of the universe, the Jaime Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein types surely wave the Too Big to Fail banner proudly, but even they don’t reach for the infallible plateau.
That distinction has been reserved for the Pope since the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870. Pius IX occupied the throne of St Peter then, putting the finishing touches on a long career as a reactionary. In theological circles Pius IX is known as the Pope who established the Immaculate Conception as dogma, often wrongly associated with Jesus himself when it in fact declares that Mary was strangely conceived without original sin. In reality, after initially flirting with liberal reform in the Papal States, he was a sworn enemy of the 1848 revolution in both its republican and national forms. Upon the restoring of papal power, after the crushing of the Roman Republic, absolute rule was again established. Through another three cardinal team dubbed the ‘Red Triumvirate’ (due to the cardinals wearing scarlet cassocks) the Inquisition was reintroduced, along with capitol punishment and public floggings. Liberals of all stripes were exiled and Jews, given full rights under the republic, were again relegated to the ghetto. It was the continuance of a long tradition of counterrevolution stretching back to 1789.
Even after Rome finally fell to the army of Italian unification in 1870, the Vatican refused to recognize the country of Italy, a state of affairs that lasted until a concordat was reached with the government of none other than Benito Mussolini.
The grand irony in all of this is that history’s cunning has handed the church many an opportunity. The defeat of fascism means there are no Francos to support. Even South America can’t present a Pinochet at the moment, nor much liberation theology to suppress. Ample chance exists to reflect on past behavior that go well beyond apologies for Galileo’s trial. What does Pope Benedict do? Remit the excommunications of the bishops of the Pius X society, a group that longs for the restoration of the monarchy in France and possesses a soft spot for the Vichy government and holocaust denial.
For all the banter about American religious organizations possibly having to cover birth control in their insurance plans, poll numbers indicate that more than 80% of Catholics regard birth control as ‘morally acceptable’. Pope Benedict? After first claiming that condoms actually would add to the AIDS epidemic in Africa he backpedaled somewhat with “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization…”
In other words the church just can’t help itself. Much like conservatism in general it does not stay static despite its intensions but must always seek greater levels of backwardness.
After the death of John Paul II in 2005 speculation arose that maybe it was time for a Pope from the Global South, that region now being the center of Catholicism (and Ground Zero in a contest for souls against Pentecostalism) as Europe, even now Ireland, has largely washed its hands of it. Such speculation is building again. However it is far better to speculate with great confidence that whoever emerges from behind the white smoke will lead a weakened, corrupt church, and to envision with hope that within a generation the allegedly religious masses of Africa and South America will join their European brothers and sisters in relegating the church to ever increasing irrelevancy.
Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.