Putting the Vatileaks Affair in Perspective

The media’s furor over the leaks says more about their ignorance than about the Church itself.

It is a bit fun—and maybe a little saddening—to watch our secularist press work itself up into a lather over the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal.  Just when the American bishops seem to be making headway with the faithful on the dangers posed by the HHS mandate, our elite journalists seem almost giddy to be handed what they believe is a story hinting at deep and dark intrigue in the Vatican. Along with the response to the Vatican’s critical assessment of segments of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s notification concerning a book by Sister Margaret A. Farley, RSM, the Vatileaks affair helps establish for our secular press their preferred narrative of a Church drowning in its own medieval incompetence.

Alas for them, the Vatileaks story as developed thus far will come as no surprise to the faithful and serves only as a sharp reminder of just how little our faith is understood by so many of the major actors in the media, highlighting, yet again, just why they so often fail to get it right when reporting on the Church.

To set the background: at issue in this seeming scandal are a series of leaked Vatican documents which form the basis of a new book titled Your Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, by Italian investigative reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi. In a June 3 New York Times article with the overwrought title, “As Vatican Manages Crisis, Book Details Infighting,” journalist Rachel Donadio breathlessly stated that “Vatileaks looks poised to become one of the most destructive, if one of the most hermetic, crises of Benedict’s troubled papacy.” Really? Because if the entirety of the scandal is accurately described in her article—and this truly is “one of the most destructive” crises His Holiness has or will face in his pontificate—then our current Holy Father has and will enjoy one of the more serene papacies of the Church’s 2,000-year history.

According to Donadio, the scandal amounts to “three shadowy Vatican machinations…a campaign to undermine the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; controversy over the management of the Vatican bank; and intense infighting between Italian cardinals vying for position in the Conclave that will one day elect Benedict’s successor.”

Seriously? That’s it? That’s the “scandal” which threatens to live as “the most destructive” episode in Pope Benedict’s pontificate? One suspects while His Holiness undoubtedly may be personally irked by such actions and feels compelled by duty to try to right the Church’s ship of state—feelings and compulsions undoubtedly also experienced by the faithful. One can be fairly certain His Holiness fully recognizes there’s nothing terribly new here. The whole thing has sort of a “dog bites man” feeling to it, hence the bemused chagrin when watching the media’s reaction to it.

Consider the “three shadowy machinations” in order. First—a campaign to undermine the Vatican Secretary of State? Allow me to direct Ms. Donadio and similarly situated secularists to the Epistles of St. Paul in which the apostle regularly defends himself from the charge—meant to undermine his ministry—that he is not a true apostle (cf. 1 Corinthians 9). 

Second—a controversy over the management of the Vatican bank? Allow me to direct Ms. Donadio to the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 12, where John tells us Judas was the keeper of the purse (the apostles’ bank, if you will) and used to steal from it regularly (Jn 12:1-8).

Finally—intense infighting among cardinals vying for position in the next conclave? Allow me to direct Ms. Donadio to the Gospel of St. Matthew, where even the mother of two saints—St. John and St. James—seeks to obtain a favored position for her sons from Jesus himself, maneuvering which the Gospel writer tells us infuriated the other apostles (Mt 20:20-28).

Put simply, there’s nothing really new to these “shadowy machinations”; they’ve been a part of the Church since its very inception. And they’ve been a part of the Church since its very inception because the Church is comprised of broken human beings—that is, sinners—and the fact is, sinners sin.

Every Catholic junior high student should know the Four Marks of the Church—that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. They should know that the Church is “one” in its worship, its leadership, and in its faith (the Magisterium)—hence the need for the correctives recently administered to the LCWR. They should know that the Church is “holy” in its Founder (Jesus), its purpose (to get people to heaven) and in some of its members—but not all of its members, and not even in some of its members much of the time. Hence the Vatileaks affair. 

Skipping “catholic” for just a moment, they should know the Church is “apostolic” in that the faith it teaches and the leadership it enjoys descend from the authority of the apostles, said authority granted by our Savior himself—hence the corrective for Sister Margaret’s “innovative” book on human sexuality.

The rub comes when we consider the “catholic” mark. The Church is “catholic”(universal) in that its Truth is available to all men and women at all times—not that it is open to all the “truths” of various men and women at various times, as some—such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—might have it. The Church is one, large conglomeration of imperfect individuals—some wheat, some weeds—brought together by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the message of Christ’s redemption and the methods for sanctification to a world desperately in need of both. It can be kind of messy, but it works.

If every Catholic junior high student should know this—along with the past failings of men and women who then became saints by God’s grace—we can be confident the Holy Father does. Would that our American journalists did. Perhaps then they would more accurately report on our faith, recognizing that we don’t claim to be a collection of perfected, sinless souls already residing in the Beatific Vision but, rather, a mass of fallen humans striving for and often achieving communion with the Risen Christ and, through that, with each other.

At the same time the New York Times was gleefully blasting the Church for the LCWR report, the notification regarding a sister’s book, and the rather tired Vatileaks scandal, an event of true import was occurring that was predictably missed by the press. More than one million people from all over the world gathered in Milan, Italy for the Church’s World Meeting of Families. La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider” reported in a June 5 article: “It was primarily a success because of the look on the faces of people who had come” just to see the Pope. That article quotes several attendees expressing how positive, how thrilling, how loving was the atmosphere. Then it offers the following quote from a woman named Pia, who had come to the event with “thousands of questions” but “felt moved”—so moved she “even took communion.”

This, in a world rightly-ordered and rightly-understood, would be the big news—the “good news” (read: gospel)—of the day; that a “lost sheep,” maybe imperfectly or maybe only temporarily, has been found. This is what the mess that is the Church is all about.

In his closing remarks at the World Meeting of Families, His Holiness, as he usually does, captured the essence of this truth, saying, “If from time to time we may think that the Ship of Peter is at the mercy of ruthless adversaries, it is also true that we see that the Lord is present, he is alive, he truly rose again and holds the government of the world and the heart of mankind in his hand.”

Just so.

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About Alan L. Anderson 17 Articles
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at the Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Ill.