Vatican magistrates formally charged Paolo Gabriele, the butler of the Roman Catholic Pope, on May 26, 2012 with illegal possession of secret documents. The Vatican issued a statement indicating that he would have “all the juridical guarantees foreseen by the criminal code of the State of Vatican City.” This case raises a number of issues.
Paolo Gabriele, left, butler to the Pope Luca Bruno/AP
First, not only is Vatican City in charge of the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., a religious institution), the city-state is also a polity. As such, the Vatican is not a democracy. This raises the question of whether Gabriele could even in principle get a fair hearing, given the conflict of interest in an official under the Pope judging a case in which his butler betrayed him by leaking even some of the Pope’s internal letters. The religious and political stature of the Pope in the Vatican suggests that it would be difficult to find any Vatican official able to judge such a case of betrayal in a neutral fashion. Furthermore, that the leaked documents point to cronyism and corruption in Vatican contracts raises the possibility that corruption had also reached the Vatican’s court system. Given the institutional conflict of interest and the nature of the material leaked, there was good reason for the case to be transferred to the European Court of Justice (Vatican City being in the E.U.).
Second, it is unseemly at the very least for a religious institution to be found mired in internal power struggles, cronyism, and corruption. The New York Times reports that the Pope was said to be “pained” that someone in his household had been accused of betraying him. Angered would be a less artful description, the Pope being only human, after all. Who would not be pissed? What is even more telling from the description of the Pope’s purported reaction is the absence of any reference to the corruption. Alternatively, the Pope could have been said to be “shocked” by the corruption surrounding the Vatican’s bank (specifically around a money-laundering scandal) and the extent of cronyism and power-struggles. At the very least, if the boys at the Vatican had been preoccupied with such games, the rather worldly orientation would make any heavenly preachment hypocritical and disingenuous.
Third, the climate being enabled at the Vatican can be explained in part by the hegemony of Catholic traditionalists there. Since the election of John Paul II in 1979, the Vatican has moved to lessen the impact of the reforming Second Vatican Council (c. 1961-1964). That council had narrowed the hierarchical distance between the clergy and the laity by allowing for increased lay involvement in the Mass (e.g., readers and Eucharistic Ministers). The trend within the Catholic Church hierarchy since 1979 has been to lean in the direction of less lay involvement, and more of an emphasis on the priest as uniquely sharing in Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass (rather than being a mere enabler). The notion that the congregants themselves are lifted up in willing sacrifice and then sanctified by ingesting the Body of Christ—the congregation thus becoming more truly the Body of Christ—was deemphasized in favor of the priest being ordained to uniquely take part in Christ’s sacrifice (some priests even saying they are Jesus in the Mass). In the context of such self-idolatry, ample allowance for cronyism and corruption in the Vatican should hardly come as a surprise. In fact, just as exacerbating the upward distance of the clergy above lay Catholics can enable the sense of unaccountability in terms of cronyism and corruption, the sense of superiority can tacitly give some clergy the sense that it is ok to abuse the most vulnerable in the laity (i.e., rape children).
One of the few benefits that come with getting older is having a better intuitive ability to read between the lines and recognize broader patterns of behavior-attitude. For example, it takes less signs to recognize a bad attitude or that one is disliked or disrespected by someone else. I was not at all surprised to read of power-struggles, cronyism, and corruption in the Vatican. Nor was I surprised to read of the Vatican’s reaction being instead oriented first to the matter of betrayal and then to the criticism of the corruption as a vicious attack against the pope himself. That it might be a moral (and religious!) duty to report and criticize corruption was somehow conveniently missed by the Vatican in indicting the butler and castigating the critics of the corruption. Every man that doth evil hateth the light (Job 3:20). The sordid perceive the light as a vicious attack rather than as salubrious and cleansing. To those of darkness, the light is the enemy, which must be destroyed rather than loved. It can legitimately be asked, therefore, whether the Holy See is primarily a religious or a political institution. If the former (and Christian in nature), one might expect the Pope to have forgiven his butler rather than react in anger at having been betrayed. Pride is the devil’s favorite sin. One cannot serve two masters, even if one is a pontiff. At the very least, it can legitimately (i.e., not in an attacking way) be asked whether the leadership of the Vatican at the time of the butler’s arrest had much of anything to do with Jesus, whether in terms of his example or teachings.
Reuters, “Pope’s Butler Is Formally Charged With Leaks,” The New York Times, May 26, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/world/europe/pope-benedicts-butler-formally-charged-with-leaks.html?_r=1