On Feb. 22, 12 days after Pope Benedict XVI announced his plan to resign, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, publicly stated that he thought Roman Catholic clergy should have the right to marry. The very next day, news leaked that O’Brien was under investigation for “inappropriate”—read sexual—advances to four young priests three decades ago; the day after that, O’Brien, 74, revealed he had already secretly resigned his archbishopric back in November (on the newly popular grounds of age and ill health) and that Benedict had just decided that Feb. 25 was a good day to put it into immediate effect. O’Brien, who remains a cardinal, added that he wouldn’t be attending the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor.
Coincidence? Not according to seasoned Vatican watchers. Having spent years trying to peer within an organizational structure opaque enough to make the old Soviet Kremlin look like a citadel of light, they are almost universally convinced that Vatican insiders could run rings around that chump Machiavelli. But it’s actually difficult to construct a coherent conspiracy theory around O’Brien—his militant defence of Catholic sexual teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage makes him hard to portray as a reformer brought down by scheming conservatives.
Yet O’Brien’s own well-publicized remarks on ending celibacy were clearly designed to push Catholicism in a direction he wanted it to go during one of the rare, between-popes times when the Church is capable of relatively sudden and sharp turns. The possibilities seem more open-ended than ever, leading into the most unpredictable papal election in centuries. And so, with no clear front-runner, far more time than usual for political manoeuvring, leaks springing, rumours flying and cardinals openly jostling for position, the ever-feverish season of papal electioneering is already under way.
O’Brien was far from the only Church insider weighing in, openly or anonymously, on what ought to be done. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, for years widely considered the leading African papabile or papal contender, indicated his agreement with his many admirers when he told a British newspaper that he’d cheerfully accept the Church’s top job “if it’s the will of God.” (Oddsmakers no longer reckon Turkson’s chances very highly: not only has the College of Cardinals always frowned on blatant political campaigning, the cardinal’s subsequent remarks that Africa had been spared much clerical sex abuse because of the continent’s “taboo” against homosexuality offended a whole other raft of Catholics.) Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, a Vatican diplomat, confessed to a reporter he wouldn’t vote for anyone like himself, because the Church needs “a pastor of souls”; in other words, a pope more like John Paul II and less like Benedict XVI.
At times the princes of the Church have been less than gracious with one another. Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, when describing his ideal pope to a German newspaper, added, as an insouciant non-sequitur, that in 2009 a group of cardinals had urged Benedict to fire his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, for incompetence—a shot directed at the ham-fisted secretary’s electoral prospects. In that regard, media reports that Canada’s Marc Ouellet can put his fellow prelates to sleep with his uninspiring orations seem positively benign. Even so, Ouellet has to face open derision at the continued decline of the Quebec Church, and more quiet references to his brother, Paul, a former teacher who not only pleaded guilty in 2009 to 20-year-old sexual offences against two teenage girls, but took out a newspaper ad to explain the crimes weren’t really his fault.
If all that seems like standard hardball politics, the leaks—like O’Brien’s outing—bring a nastier edge. Whatever the motives behind it, one of its effects will be O’Brien’s absence from the conclave and the fresh impetus that will give to American Catholics attempting to stop Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony—under fire for covering up the crimes of clerical child sex abusers during the 1980s—from attending. O’Brien’s recusal is a blow to Mahony’s main rationale for going to Rome. No cardinal has ever before willingly abandoned his “main duty,” according to historian Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice-prefect of the Vatican library: “The thing that characterizes a cardinal is to be an elector of the pope.” Now the precedent has been set.
The real pre-conclave bombshell, however, came in the form of a Feb. 21 story in the respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica containing details of the report three senior cardinals made to Benedict about the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal—a damaging leak, as it were, about a previous damaging leak. Vatileaks—its name a play on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks—broke open in January 2012, as secret Vatican documents appeared in the Italian media seemingly revealing the return of the Renaissance papacy, complete with internal power struggles over efforts to establish greater financial transparency, especially to comply with new international laws dealing with money laundering. One memo claimed the recently fired president of the Vatican bank exhibited “psychopathological dysfunction.” But the headline-grabber was the revelation that a mafioso was accepted for burial in a basilica beside popes after his widow paid a $400,000 bribe to officials. The leaks were traced to Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, though many observers riveted by the intra-bureaucracy battle understandably doubt that the butler did it all on his own.
Just as the original horror show was fading from the news, came La Repubblica’s report. The newspaper said the cardinals reporting to the pope identified factions within the bureaucracy, including one “united by sexual orientation.” They added that some officials had been subject to “external influence” from laymen with whom they had links of a “worldly nature,” universally read as a reference to blackmail. For most media, the leak torqued an explosive financial corruption story into yet another sensational Church sex scandal, the probable aim of the leakers.
That idea, however, is hardly likely to fly with the cardinal electors, many of whom think Vatican governance is in a very real state of crisis. For all the Church’s long-term worldwide challenges, the leaks and innuendo may turn goverance into the decisive issue in selecting the next pope. That would reshuffle the papabili deck once again. After 45 years of popes whose main interests—worldwide evangelization and combatting European secularism—led them to neglect the bureaucracy, the cardinals may opt for someone to clean the stables. The question of nationality, muted in the talk that divided papabili between First and Third World candidates, would take on a new importance. Will the cardinals want an Italian pope, on the theory that in dealing with an Italian-dominated bureaucracy, he would know where the bodies are buried? Or will an Italian be the last man they would want? Assuming, of course, that a new set of leaks—by now, almost expected on a daily basis—doesn’t set the election on yet another course.