Today the Vatican’s Secretariat of State issued a communique deploring the “widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable, or even completely false news stories” ahead of the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, calling such reports an attempt to influence the cardinal-electors “through public opinion.”
Also published this morning is an editorial from Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who, without identifying specific targets, lambasts “those who seek to profit from the moment of surprise and disorientation of the spiritually naive to sow confusion and to discredit the Church and its governance, making recourse to old tools, such as gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander, or exercising unacceptable pressures to condition the exercise of the voting duty on the part of one or another member of the College of Cardinals, who they consider to be objectionable for one reason or another.”
While neither of these statements from the Vatican explicitly say as much, they are widely assumed to have been penned in response to articles in several Italian newspapers alleging that Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation was prompted by a top-secret report detailing the intrigue and back-biting of various Vatican lobbies, including a well-connected “gay lobby” (a rehash of La Repubblica’s story on the report can be read here). The report, compiled by three cardinals at Benedict’s behest, is said to have been delivered to Holy Father in mid-December. The narrative being promoted in the Italian media is that Pope Benedict was so shocked and disheartened by the contents of that report—the financial malfeasance at the heart of the “Vatileaks” scandal as well as homosexual escapades and blackmail within the Curia—that he promptly determined to resign from office.
No sources have been named in any of the Italian reports, but the recent reassignment of one of the Vatican officials mentioned in the La Repubblica article has been seen by some as a confirmation of at least some of the story’s sordid details.
It can be difficult to know how much, if any, of these news reports are trustworthy—and even more difficult to put them into context in the highly-charged climate of curial politics, a nearly-unprecedented papal resignation, and the drama of a coming conclave. Phil Lawler and John Allen both offer calm, measured takes on the reports, balanced by many years of following Vatican affairs and a healthy reserve about news reports based on unnamed sources and unverifiable assertions.
Allen points out that the element of the story that may seem the most shocking actually isn’t terribly surprising, should it turn out to be true:
In terms of the story’s specifics, I don’t know whether it’s accurate that a commission of three cardinals created by Benedict XVI to investigate the Vatican leaks affair, composed of Cardinals Julian Herranz Casado, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi, actually considered possible networks inside the Vatican based on sexual preference, but frankly, it would be a little surprising if they hadn’t.
… It also doesn’t stretch credulity to believe there are still people in the system leading a double life, not just in terms of their sexual preference and activities, but possibly in other ways as well — in terms of their financial interests, for example. Whether they form self-conscious cabals is open to question, but they may well naturally identify with each other, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that trying to chart such networks was part of what the three cardinals tried to do.
Assuming that the dealings and conniving of a highly-placed gay faction within the Vatican were a part of the cardinals’ report to the Pope, Lawler calls the idea that such news would have prompted Benedict’s resignation “nonsense.” He continues:
Pope Benedict, who has lived in Rome and worked with the Roman Curia for more than 30 years, has surely heard the reports and the rumors. He cannot possibly have been shocked by the news that some Vatican officials are homosexual. “He is probably the last person who would be surprised by such a so-called revelation,” remarked Jean-Marie Guenois, another veteran Vatican journalist and editor of Le Figaro.
Allen and Lawler agree that the numerous scandals, gaffes, and controversies in which the Vatican has been embroiled in recent years have undoubtedly taken their toll on the aging Pontiff; but that only supports the Holy Father’s stated reason for his resignation, rather than signaling some kind of dark, mysterious conspiracy. Allen writes:
For the most part, one has to take the pope at his word: He’s stepping aside because he’s old and tired, not because of any particular crisis.
That said, I don’t believe you can completely discount the cumulative impact of the various meltdowns over the last eight years on Benedict’s state of mind. Read Benedict’s anguished letter to the bishops of the world back in 2009, at the peak of the frenzy over the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, and it’s crystal clear he was both pained by the criticism it generated and frustrated the Vatican hadn’t handled the whole thing more effectively.
Lawler also expresses skepticism that a supposed gay-cabal-and-blackmail report could have been a serious influence on Pope Benedict’s resignation:
If the three cardinals made the homosexual network a major focus of their report, and if they found the homosexual influence was more extensive than Pope Benedict had already realized, and if the Pontiff had not already made up his mind to step down, then conceivably the “Vatileaks” report could have been one factor contributing to the Pope’s decision. But there is one more reason to believe that it would have been a minor factor, at best.
Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the Pope suddenly became aware of a powerful homosexual cabal. What would he be likely to do? Why would he resign? Why wouldn’t he stay and fight to restore the integrity of the Church? Throughout his life Pope Benedict has shown a consistent willingness to take on tough problems, even when his actions are likely to prove unpopular. He has always been ready to do whatever he can do to promote Catholic doctrine and discipline.
“Whatever he can do”—ah, there’s the rub. This Pope is no coward; he is not a man to run away from a problem. But there is a limit to his strength and he has reached it.
Whether or not revelations of depravity and intrigue within the Church bureaucracy motivated Pope Benedict to resign, it is clear that the Vatican believes the recent media reports have the potential to influence the cardinal-electors in the final days before the conclave. The Secretariat of State’s communique and Father Lombardi’s editorial both call out those who would attempt to distort public perception of individuals within the Vatican, or of Church governance as a whole, at a time when the electors will be looking with increased scrutiny at their fellow cardinals before heading into the seclusion of the conclave. Interestingly, a story at Vatican Insider states that Pope Benedict may authorize the disclosure of the Vatileaks report to the entire College of Cardinals before the conclave—allowing the electors to draw their own conclusions about the scandal and those involved in it without media sensationalism and speculation.