What is behind the Vatileaks plot? Mainly, it seems, it’s a conspiracy against the Pope’s most trusted collaborator: so we should pray that it fails

What on earth is going on in Vatican City? I cannot be the only one utterly confused by the whole thing nor the only one concerned for the Holy Father, whom this affair has, apparently, greatly distressed.

His butler is under arrest; a great stash of the Pope’s private papers have been found in his apartment. Leaked papers of this kind have formed the basis of a scurrilous book by an Italian journalist: and the whole phenomenon has now been given its journalistic nametag. At least it’s not “butlergate”, but something almost as ghastly: “Vatileaks”. There is, it is generally assumed, a conspiracy: but if so, what is it all about and who is involved? Having spent several days on the net trying to sort out the whole complex story in my head, and stumped for an opening paragraph, I had a brainwave. I looked up “Vatileaks” on Wikipedia. Sure enough, there’s already an entry. Here’s the introductory paragraph, which, since it looks more or less correct, I hereby adopt as my own prefatory remarks:

“The Vatileaks scandal is a scandal involving leaked Vatican documents, allegedly exposing corruption.

“The scandal first came to light in January 2012 when Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi published letters from Carlo Maria Viganò, formerly the second ranked Vatican administrator to the Pope, in which he begged not to be transferred for having exposed alleged corruption that cost the Holy See millions in higher contract prices. Viganò is now the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.

“Over the following months the scandal widened as documents were leaked to Italian journalists, uncovering power struggles inside the Vatican over its efforts to show greater financial transparency and comply with international norms to fight money laundering. Also in early 2012, an anonymous letter made the headlines for its warning of a death threat against Pope Benedict XVI.

“The scandal escalated in May 2012 when Nuzzi published a book entitled His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI consisting of confidential letters and memos between Pope Benedict and his personal secretary, a controversial book that portrays the Vatican as a hotbed of jealousy, intrigue and underhanded factional fighting. The book reveals details about the Pope’s personal finances, and includes tales of bribes made to procure an audience with him.”

Now, there seems to be a growing consensus that the principal target of the conspirators is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s Secretary of State or “Prime Minister”. According to Robert Mickens on the Tablet blog,

“First of all, the leaking of the private Vatican documents is clearly intended to embarrass Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s Secretary of State. They are aimed at his removal.” (my italics) Now, Cardinal Bertone himself gave an interview on Monday; and according to the usually well-informed John L Allen, “The Bertone interview is noteworthy primarily because it’s the first time the Vatican’s “prime minister” has spoken at length about the leaks scandal … Bertone’s comments take on special significance given that many analysts believe he is the primary target of the leaks… perhaps the most striking element of the interview is Bertone’s comment that the leaking of confidential documents seems “carefully aimed, and sometimes also ferocious, destructive and organised”.

Carefully aimed at him, he means: so why? I have a theory, and if I am right, I ought to have been able to foresee that there would be opposition to him (though not its ferocity) since I wrote approvingly about one of the main reasons for his appointment at the time: that he was not one of the professional State Department diplomats, not, in other words, one of the class from which a series of (for us) disastrous papal nuncios has emerged. There would obviously be opposition from the diplomats: and so it has proved. One of the leading conspirators, according to the authoritative Sandro Magister, is “Jean-Louis Tauran, who as former foreign minister of the Holy See has never been able to swallow the entrusting of the Secretariat of State to someone with no expertise in diplomacy, like Bertone”.

Of all the many explanations I have read of the motivations behind this conspiracy, the one that makes most sense to me is that of the Italian journalist Andrea Gagliarducci in his blog MondayVatican this week, which I need to quote at length:

Let’s make a step back in the past. In June 2006, the Pope had to announce that – after his return to Rome from his trip to Bavaria – his first act of governance will be the change of the Secretary of State, with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone replacing Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

… Many in the Curia were discontent. Bertone not only was not a career diplomat – as almost all the secretaries of state have been in recent centuries – but he came from the ranks of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which he was the secretary from 1995 to 2003. He was the number two man, with Joseph Ratzinger as prefect, and now he is again becoming the main collaborator of the new Pope. Even after his election as Pope, Ratzinger has kept him as an adviser and a friend: not a week was gone by that they have not spoken together or seen each other.

Bertone’s appointment as Secretary of State signed a sort of “vindication” for the Holy Office. Called by this name until the 1960s, the Congregation was referred to within the Vatican as «la Suprema». Its highest official was the Pope himself, and the rest of the Curia hinged upon it. But then came Paul VI, and the Secretariat of State became the central axis of the Curia.

With John Paul II, who had little interest in Church governance, the power of the Secretariat of State in the Church’s internal and external affairs grew even greater. It is no surprise that in the last change of the papacy, the two head honchos of diplomacy and of the Curia – Cardinals Sodano and Achille Silvestrini – were the ones most staunchly opposed to the election of Ratzinger, just as they later tried to block the appointment of Bertone.

The Pope’s reasons for appointing Bertone in the first place were clear enough then: and they explain both the conspiracy against him, and the Pope’s clear support for him, now. At the time, John L Allen surmised that Pope Benedict’s intention in appointing Cardinal Bertone was to give more emphasis to doctrine and less to diplomacy; this was confirmed by the Pope himself who said that as Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Bertone had combined “pastoral care and doctrinal wisdom”. Those same qualities, the Pope wrote, led him to choose the cardinal for his “exalted and delicate task” at the Secretariat of State.

But why, I wrote in Faith Magazine in 2006, would the Pope want a more doctrinally focused Secretary of State? The answer had to do with another question, often asked in this country. Why was it, when nearly all the present bishops were appointed by Pope John Paul II, that so many of them seemed dedicated to frustrating his intentions? Why, in other words, had he made so many mistakes? The answer was that in recommending a priest to the Pope for appointment as bishop, the Congregation for Bishops in Rome is almost entirely dependent on the information relayed to it by the Apostolic Nuncio of the country concerned. Why have we had overwhelmingly liberal bishops for the last 30 years? Because we have had liberal nuncios. Who appoints the nuncios? Why, the Secretary of State.

The Pope will stand by Cardinal Bertone. For the fact is that the conspiracy against Bertone is nothing less than a conspiracy against the Holy Father himself. Remember Andrea Gagliarducci’s words: “in the last change of the papacy, the two head honchos of diplomacy and of the curia – Cardinals Sodano and Achille Silvestrini – were the ones most staunchly opposed to the election of Ratzinger, just as they later tried to block the appointment of Bertone”. The tensions inside the Curia are the same now as they were then: the difference is that the anti-Ratzingerians cannot expose themselves as such: they cannot openly oppose the Pope: so they oppose his closest collaborator.

Let us be clear: the battle going on in Rome is one in the outcome of which we in this country have a clear interest. Thanks to Cardinal Bertone, we have the first trustworthy and clearly orthodox nuncio here for many decades. So this battle concerns us. I don’t recommend that you get involved in the details. As Mgr Ronald Knox famously pronounced: “He who travels in the Barque of Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room.” But we should pray for the Holy Father, and also for his close collaborator, Cardinal Bertone, as they come under attack. We will all get through all this; the Pope will see us through. But it’s steady as she goes.