The Vatican returns as a global hotpot of political intrigue

In the Middle Ages, as personified by the Borgias, the struggle for power in Rome was characterized by poisoning or mayhem behind closed doors. There were no public announcements of such bloodletting. There was only the whisper of rumors in the streets.

Times have apparently changed: Public information or the dissemination of it is now the battlefield for what may amount to an attempted coup d’état in the Vatican.

After a three-year hiatus, the the Holy See is again swamped by a series of scandalous revelations. All appear aimed at shaking papal authority in the Catholic Church, the largest unified religion in the world, to its core.

Some three years ago, a series of news disclosures, popularly called Vati-leaks, led to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. One of the Pope’s butlers was eventually arrested and sentenced for those leaks.

There are those in Rome who believe other, more powerful figures (who remain unknown), were involved in the story of Benedict’s resignation. The reports, letters, and internal correspondence of the Pope and his closest associates ended up in a book by journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, Sua Santità: le carte segrete di Benedetto XVI.

The current Vati-leaks also are spinning around in a book by Nuzzi, titled this time Via Crucis.  The tome was published over the past several days just as the important Catholic assembly known as the Synod of the Bishops ended. This synod proved to be a very difficult meeting where the debate focused on controversial positions relating to marriage, divorce, and sexuality.

It was in the middle of synod’s three-week-long and heated dialogue between the prelates, representing 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, that three scandalous pieces of news surfaced.

The first scandal emerged at the opening of the Synod on Oct. 3. A senior prelate of the Prefecture of the Doctrine of the Faith, almost the temple of Catholic orthodoxy, announced that he was gay and was living with a partner.

It was taken as a major affront during an assembly intended open a dialogue between conservatives and non-conservatives on the question of altering official  church doctrine on sexuality.

The second occurred a few days later, in the second week of the synod. Some Italian newspapers published a letter signed by 13 cardinals critical of Pope Francis’ ideas on the family — though it was later found that the letter was not the version handed to the Pope and some of the cardinals never signed it.

It is customary for cardinals, bishops, and even common priests to write to the Pope on all kinds of issues on a range of opinions. However, the content of a letter signed by 13 very authoritative cardinals, hinted clearly at a possible and major split within the church. According to theologians, the letter put strict doctrinal limits to the Pope’s ability to maneuver on family issues. The letter also suggested that any move by the Pope on such tricky doctrinal ground might force the pontiff from his leadership of the church.

Lastly on Oct. 21, at the end of the synod, came the false news that the Pope Francis was ill with a brain tumor. The information, which was immediately and strongly denied, was aimed at “undermining the authority of the pope, in a moment when many, in and out of the church, look to him[1],” commented Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli.

After that came the aforementioned book by Nuzzi. It looked as if the process that prompted the resignation of Pope Benedict had been set in motion again against Pope Francis.

However, this time Vatican security promptly intervened by arresting monsignor Luis Angel Vallejo Balda and Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui. They were accused of having leaked the documents to Nuzzi and other journalists. Vallejo served as the secretary of the office of account revisions for the Vatican. To make matters worse, new press reports point to suspected Vatican involvement in money laundering, insider trading, and market manipulation.

Nuzzi is clearly the common link between the two Vati-leaks, and because the same method was used and at least one of the same people was involved, people in Rome infer that some officials in the Curia were thinking of bringing down this Pope just as they did with his predecessor.

Pope Francis is extremely popular with the common people, but is viewed as very contentious within part of the Vatican hierarchy. One reason for this is that Pope Francis has been undercutting many privileges of the Curia, making some members resentful.

The slew of leaks involving Pope Benedict in retrospect, were clearly geared to prepare for his succession. Benedict, in those leaks, appeared not in to be in control of the Holy See. The church seemed rudderless, an institution that demanded a radical change, possibly from somebody closer to the mighty Curia.

However, these plans were thrown to the wind when Benedict announced his resignation in early 2013 and a complete outsider to the papal selection process was elected — Bergoglio, the cardinal of Argentina, who took the name Francis.

With the succession of the new Pope, it is clear that there is a new spirit in the Vatican. Francis, unlike his predecessor, also didn’t wait months or years to act on issues dear to his heart.

Yet, even after the capture of Vallejo and Chaouqui, people in Rome wonder if such leaks or arrests will stop. It seems unlikely that these two, who occupied rather junior positions in the Holy See, could have orchestrated all these scandals by themselves.

On the other hand, this latest spate of attacks on Pope Francis show that the Holy See has once again become a focus of political power and intrigue after a lapse of many centuries.

Plots were rife in Rome during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the Catholic Church was pivotal in maintaining the balance of power in Europe. Conspiracies dwindled thereafter with the declining influence of the popes after the split of Northern European Protestants.

The growing political importance of the church reflects the massive global role it played in the latter stages of the Cold War and following that, in the face of the threat posed by Islamic extremism. Its increasing political prominence has been further fanned by the growing economic and social divide between rich and poor countries.

 [1] See http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/vaticano/dettaglio-articolo/articolo/sinodo-famiglia-44142/

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.



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