The Atlantic | September 28 2012 | Thanks, Ann B
Strange things have been happening at the Vatican this year. Beginning in January, documents written by high-level figures in the Catholic Church began finding their way into the Italian press, many of the letters to the pope denouncing instances of corruption and complaining about the direction and management of the Church.
When a book full of leaked documents, Sua Santità (His Holiness), was published in late May, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of arresting the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, a humble but trusted member of the papal household, and announced that officials had found numerous papal documents at Gabriele’s apartment within the Vatican. At the same time, the Vatican Bank, under investigation for money laundering (charges the Vatican denies), fired its president, a respected Catholic banker, listing among the reasons for his dismissal allegations that sounded a lot like leaking: “Failure to provide any formal explanation for the dissemination of documents last known to be in the President’s possession.” Immediately after his firing, the former bank president hired his own bodyguard service and wrote a private memorandum to the pope, which he wished to disseminate “in case something should happen to him.”
Power struggles and scandal are nothing new in the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI, for one, was accused of poisoning his enemies and sleeping with his daughter, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. But until now the pope had been able to count on the loyalty and discretion of his inner circle and a hermetically sealed culture of silence, discretion, and secrecy that has often been compared with that of the Kremlin at the height of Soviet power. Now the last and most ancient of the world’s absolute monarchies is suddenly in the fishbowl culture of the 21st century, where the most-trivial and the most-important details alike become transparent.
The job of managing this transition from secrecy to openness has fallen to Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s official spokesman, a Jesuit priest who wears a uniform of simple black pants and a black shirt with a white collar. When I met him this summer in Rome at the end of another long day at Vatican Radio, he had the deeply exhausted look of a man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. A thoughtful and kindly-looking man who trained as a mathematician, Lombardi now finds himself in the much messier world of media, in which appearance and reality, rumor and fact can all get mixed up in an impossible tangle.
For an organization famous historically for keeping its internal business as private as possible, the Vatican has gone out of its way since the scandal broke this spring to be as open and accountable as possible. Having been embarrassed by constant leaking, the Vatican has clearly decided to go on the counteroffensive, releasing information in anticipation of events so that it is not constantly caught off guard by embarrassing revelations. Lombardi has been giving nonstop press briefings since Paolo Gabriele was arrested on May 24; at an August briefing, he even took the extraordinary step of making public the indictment papers against Gabriele. The Vatican promised that his trial, set to begin September 29, would be made public (immediately after the May arrest, all the pretrial documents were posted on the Vatican press office’s Web site). Also indicted but on lesser charges was a computer technician, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who is seen as a minor accomplice in the misappropriation of documents.
Suddenly, the word transparency, which was hardly pronounced during the first two millennia of the Catholic Church’s history, is on everyone’s lips at the Vatican, in what amounts to a kind of Copernican revolution — an attempt on the part of an essentially medieval institution to join the Internet age. One medieval pope described himself as “the judge of all men who can be judged by none.” The current Vatican has begun in recent years to accept, painfully, that this is no longer the case. If it does not want to be defined by others, the Church must respond to and even court public opinion, using modern media to shape its message.