Thirty Days that Shook the Catholic World
[June 10, 2013]
The thirty days that elapsed earlier this year from February 11 (when Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign) until March 13 (when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J. was elected on the conclave’s fifth ballot) were book-ended by two historic developments:
No reigning pontiff had resigned over the previous 598 years; and
The first-ever Western Hemisphere pope, who described himself as coming “from almost the ends of the earth,” was elected quickly by super-majority, on the second day of the conclave.
With intense speculation about the priorities of Pope Francis and widespread expectations of Curia Romana reform, it is easy for all but the most avid Vaticanisti to lose sight of what transpired during the thirty days between Benedict’s announcement and the election of Francis.
Difficult to discern the longer term consequences, but some dots can be connected:
Benedict’s decision has set a modern precedent for something not unlike the American Constitution’s 25th amendment regarding presidential succession in the event of disability; and
During these crucial thirty days some significant personnel moves involving the Vatican bank were made, while the media were busy handicapping the run-up to the imminent conclave; a clever move to hide things in plain sight, but not really bella figura, (i.e. a good image), given the bank’s checkered history, and not the last that has been heard from that peculiar institution.
A separate post on the run-up to the conclave will come at a later date, to keep this one to a manageable length. In brief:
(a) A possible review of eligibility for the conclave in the wake of the self-exclusion of Edinburgh’s Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, and the embarrassing presence of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger [the LA Dodger] Mahony; Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali slipped in under the radar; and
(b) The overt politicking and blatant media posturing of the U.S. cardinal electors who were finally told to stop their daily press briefings, held in counterpoint to the Vatican’s strenuous effort to manage the conclave message, with 5,600 accredited media men and women in Rome.
At around noon, Monday February 11, Rome time, the Italian news service carried Pope Benedict’s announcement of his intention to resign, made during a speech he delivered in Latin, which sailed over the heads of most of the audience.
Personal note: at the time (6:00 AM Eastern), I was on the website of Il Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper and concluded immediately that this was bogus, the work of hackers. Lesson Relearned: we process the unknown in the context of what we think we know.
Benedict’s decision drew a wide range of comments. One of the most startling came six hours later from Cracow, Poland, where Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II’s longtime personal secretary, said, the lesson of Pope Wojtyla’s life is that one does not climb down from the Cross.
In retrospect there were very faint warning signs, notably Benedict’s visit in 2009 to the tomb of Pope Celestine V in L’Aquila, who resigned in 1294, overwhelmed by the task:
Benedict put his pallium [symbol of office] on his predecessor’s resting place. But at the time this did not draw much notice. Perhaps, characteristically of Pope Ratzinger, the gesture was too subtle for most of the 1.2 billion faithful.
Another portent was in the fall of 2012 when renovations began on a building inside the confines of the Vatican’s 105 acres, the Mater Ecclesiae, formerly a cloistered convent which was in some disrepair at the time. Now suitably rehabbed, it is the residence of the Pope Emeritus.
Perhaps the catalyst for the specific timing of the February 11 announcement was on December 17 last, when a troika of over-age 80 cardinals delivered to Benedict their 300-page report on the Vatileaks scandal. There is only one specimen [thus not a ‘copy’] of the report, but there is speculation that its’ contents shocked the Pope into making piazza pulita (a clean sweep) of the Curia Romana by his resignation which automatically triggered the resignations of all Vatican prefetti (senior officials). Journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, deeply involved in the Vatileaks saga, commented,
“It is above all the Curia and its system of power…All of the high brass of the Curia lost their jobs in one clean sweep…cleared the decks giving his successor the chance to start anew”
The longer term consequences for the papacy are hard to fathom. Perhaps Benedict’s resignation will be codified into the constitution of the Vatican, Universi Dominici Gregis. Or it might become modern precedent, to deal with physical disability (cfr. John Paul’s last years), or deep psychological anguish (cfr. Paul VI, after the ordeal of the kidnap and murder by Red Brigade terrorists of his friend of three+ decades, Aldo Moro).
The damned Vatican bank, again
Some commentators argue that there is no such thing as a Vatican “bank”, if the term means a commercial bank that takes deposits and makes loans. Hogwash. Think of the ‘bank’ as a Wall Street hedge fund, minus the deep spirituality of most NY fund managers. The Vatican bank, formally the Istituto per le Opere di Religione [‘IOR’] was created by Pope Pius XII in the midst of Word War II (‘hmmm’, as Marge Simpson would say). There are dozens of books about its sordid history, unfortunately many of them untranslated from the Italian, and jammed with dense legal and financial arcana. But just for the flavor of things…
Try parsing the difference between a Bank Comfort Letter and a Bank Guarantee; legions of lawyers argued (lucratively) about this for years, but after wrangling and strenuous denials of IOR liability, in 1986 the bank mooted the issue by settling ‘voluntarily’ with creditors for about $250 million.
And consider the curious death by strangulation, in June of 1982, of Roberto Calvi, found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. As head of Milan’s Banco Ambrosiano, his bank had a network of deals with the IOR; at the time a coroner ruled death a suicide; however, 20 years later a ‘forensic report…established that Calvi had been murdered’ [Wikipedia]. To date, no hedge fund manager has been found swinging from a rope tied to the Brooklyn Bridge.
But fast-forward to the present. About a year ago, in May, 2012, the president of the IOR, Signor Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was fired, summarily and publicly, by the bank’s board of directors. He had been hired in 2009, after a careful screening process, with deep experience in the banking industry as the head of Spain’s Banco Santander affiliates in Italy; Santander’s ties to Opus Dei are a matter of record. With impeccable Catholic credentials, he was handpicked by the Vatican’s Secretary of State (prime minister in all but name), Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. And he gets ousted after less than three years.
The presidency of the bank remained open for almost nine months, when – quelle surprise – just a few days after Pope Benedict’s announcement, and thus in the midst of a tsunami of media coverage about the upcoming conclave, some decisions regarding the bank slip into public view, with little pick-up by the international media:
On February 14 an Italian news agency reports that a Belgian board member, Monsieur Bernard de Corte, will become the bank’s president; this is denied promptly by the Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi;
A mere two days later, it is announced officially that the position will be filled by Herr Ernst Von Freyberg, also a board member, a prominent German businessman, and a leading Catholic as a member of the Order of Malta;
On the day of the Freyburg news it is also officially announced that a member of the bank’s supervisory board of cardinals (not to be confused with its board of directors), Cardinal Attilio Nicora, has been removed, to be replaced by Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, a close associate of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone;
And finally, in mid-February just days after Benedict’s announcement, the high-ranking Vatican official in the Secretariat of State responsible for monitoring the IOR – Monsignor Ettore Balestrero – is promoted to archbishop, to be sent to Bogotà, Colombia as papal nuncio – with diplomatic immunity. As ‘under secretary of state’, Monsignor Balestrero had been the eyes and ears of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, tasked with monitoring the IOR.
If you are confused, then those who engineered these maneuvers truly deserve a hearty Mission Accomplished.
And one has to ask, why the rush to set in stone senior-level bank personnel decisions that had been left open for most of a year? Why not leave this to the next Pope?
To put things in perspective, consider a very imperfect analogy from four decades ago towards the end of the Watergate saga. Put yourself in the timeframe of June/July of 1974 when the end of the Nixon presidency was in sight, and ask yourself what would have happened if Milhous had fired the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and had replaced a pesky Fed director with a pal – say Bebe Rebozo? And quickly transferred General Al Haig to Brussels as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, with no need for the nit-picking of Senate confirmation (which did indeed happen a few months after Nixon’s resignation)?
On another personal note, during the conclave I tried to use a credit card at the Libreria Vaticana to pay for some (expensive) reference books. The cashier informed me that credit cards could not be used because as of January 1, 2013, Italy’s Central Bank had blocked the clearing of credit card transactions involving the IOR. Plus ça change.
The future of the IOR will have to be addressed by the Gang of Eight cardinals tasked with advising Pope Francis on the Curia Romana. The legendary Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, former IOR president, famously commented, the Catholic Church cannot be run on Hail Marys.
But, per an old Latin saying, Corruptio optimi pessima est…
The corruption of the best people is the worst thing
The Gang of Eight will have to choose.