VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict in 2005, epithets like “God’s Rottweiler” and “Panzerkardinal” suggested he would bring some German efficiency to the opaque Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia.
Instead, as the “Vatileaks” scandal has revealed, the head of the Roman Catholic Church can’t even keep his own private mail secret. His hand-picked deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, faces a “monsignors’ mutiny” by prelates in the halls of power.
Benedict’s papacy has been marked until now by controversies over things he has said and done, such as his criticism of Islam at Regensburg in 2006 or his 2009 decision to readmit four excommunicated ultra-traditionalist bishops to the Church.
Now a goal he has failed to achieve — gain control over the Curia — has come back to haunt him. Leaks of confidential documents on everything from Vatican finances to private papal audiences make his papacy look weak and disorganized.
“We’ve almost forgotten that reform of the Curia was part of Benedict’s program at the start,” recalled Isabelle de Gaulmyn, who was Vatican correspondent for the French Catholic daily La Croix at the time.
“Seven years later, the Curia has never seemed as opaque, ineffective, closed and badly governed as it is today.”
The “Vatileaks” scandal has revealed, among other issues, the infighting behind the sacking of the Vatican bank president. The pope’s own butler has been arrested on suspicion of stealing documents that have since been leaked to the media.
The target seems to be Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state (prime minister), whose critics accuse him of playing politics and blocking their efforts to stamp out corruption and cronyism in Vatican management.
The Curia, a centuries-old bureaucracy dominated by Italian clerics, is essential to the success or failure of a papacy because it can effectively cancel or water down papal decisions if they go against long-standing interests or traditions.
Its name comes from the Latin word for a royal court and its jumble of overlapping departments, commissions and tribunals seems more suited to an intrigue-filled Renaissance monarchy than a modern and transparent democratic government.
The institution that gave the world the word “nepotism” is not always a model meritocracy either. Some officials are talented and dynamic while others are bureaucrats who seem to owe their posts more to connections than capabilities.
Each department has an advisory board of cardinals and bishops and those who sit on several boards can create powerful links that cut across department lines to influence policy.
Pressure for reform grew during the long reign of Pope John Paul. He announced changes in the 1980s to give local bishops more say in central policy-making, but focused more on his travel and preaching and did not really implement it.
Benedict was seen as the best man to reform it since he had been a Curia member since 1981 and reportedly knew it inside out. Now the task looks set to be handed on to his successor.
“I’m not sure anyone has ever really controlled it, or can control it,” Thomas F.X. Noble, history professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana, said of the bureaucracy housed on the Vatican grounds and in office buildings nearby.
The Curia has held its own in Church power terms despite two non-Italian popes and the growing majority of Catholics from the developing world.
In February, the last time Benedict named new cardinals, 10 of the 18 who can vote for the next pope were Curia officials. That boosted their faction to 35 percent of the votes in the next conclave, meaning they will play an important role in the election and could try to win the papacy back for Italy.
Supporters of the tradition of Italian popes say only they know the culture well enough to control the Curia.
The crisis, which hurts Benedict’s image as a leader just as he drives an increasingly conservative line in Church policy, is as much a result of the pope’s diffident management style as of the institutional dysfunction of the Curia itself.
“He’s a solitary scholar and he’s not interested in the bureaucracy,” said Chester Gillis, professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington. “His real ambition seems to be to finish the third volume of his book.”
Benedict, a leading Catholic theologian in his own right, has devoted considerable time in office to writing a major study entitled “Jesus of Nazareth” rather than administering the Church. The first two volumes appeared in 2007 and 2011.
His stern reputation stems from his long tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), where he cracked down on liberal trends such as liberation theology.
But his CDF work focused on his own specialty, theology. “It was not about managing the Church,” Gillis noted.
When he was elected pope, Benedict brought along several trusted CDF colleagues, including Bertone.
Bertone’s critics call him an autocratic power-broker, a role the Curia lends itself to because its structure suits a Renaissance monarchy more than modern democratic governance.
There are no cabinet meetings among heads of departments, or dicasteries, and information circulates mostly on a need-to-know basis. Decisions with major implications for the Church are not always discussed with other departments that might be affected.
Benedict did start reforming the Curia in early 2006, downgrading its department for interfaith dialogue into a sub-department of the culture ministry and sending its experienced head away to be nuncio (ambassador) in Cairo.
But he restored it as a full department the following year after his Regensburg speech in September 2006, which suggested Islam was violent and irrational, sparked protests by Muslims in several Islamic countries.
Some Curia officials had vetted the speech but not warned him of its diplomatic dangers. At Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland earlier that year, Benedict added the word Holocaust to his speech after journalists saw an advance text and told his aides Jews would be offended if he did not clearly mention it.
Benedict’s aides apparently did not prepare him for the wave of sharp protests from Catholics, Jews and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel to his surprise decision in 2009 to readmit four rebel bishops to the Church after a 21-year schism.
The shocked pope had to write a long letter explaining the step and admit nobody in the Curia had done an Internet search for him and seen one bishop was a notorious Holocaust denier.
The Vatican has also reacted slowly and defensively to the clerical sexual abuse scandal shaking national churches around the world, giving the impression it puts its institutional interests ahead of the children molested by priests.
The cumulative effect of such incidents over the years and revelations of Vatican mismanagement now has been to cast Benedict’s as “a tin ear papacy,” said Christopher Bellitto, a Catholic Church historian at Kean University in New Jersey.
“This all seems to be a power game that matters only to the power players,” he said. “It seems to be a Church hierarchy further distancing itself from the people in the pews.”
(This story corrects name and university in second to last paragraph)
Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Jon Boyle