This week, all eyes fall on the College of Cardinals in Rome as it prepares to choose a new pope to follow Benedict XVI. But the tableau is rife with Vatican rivalry and controversy.
The tone is somber as the princes of the church gather Monday for general discussions, and to begin deciding when to hold the conclave to elect the next pope. Most Vatican analysts believe it will begin by the end of this week or early next week, so prelates can return to their dioceses in time for Palm Sunday on March 24.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, continues to attract attention as a potential contender, although most analysts say an American pope is unlikely. In an interview published Sunday with the National Catholic Reporter, O’Malley said having his name mentioned as a possible choice “seems kind of surreal.”
“I guess I don’t pay that much attention to it. I realize that it’s out there, but I’m a very dark horse,” he said.
Asked if he is able to dismiss the prospect, he replied, “If I think about it, it’s very scary. Because I think the possibility is so remote, it’s not something that I worry about.”
The deliberations in Rome take shape as news of discord within the Vatican reached fever pitch in the last few days. A major Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, reported that three cardinals investigating leaks of private papal documents had produced a red-bound, two-volume dossier for the next pope that showed a Vatican in disarray, including reports that some gay church officials had engaged in sexual exploits that had left them vulnerable to blackmail, according to The Guardian.
The cardinals’ investigation focused on a major security breach last year in which the pope’s butler shared Benedict’s private papers with an Italian journalist. The papers, published in a best-selling book, revealed fierce rivalries and allegations of financial corruption within the Vatican.
Deepening the intrigue, the Italian magazine Panorama reported last week that church officials used wiretapping and surveillance within the Vatican to get to the bottom of the leaks scandal.
On Thursday, according to The New York Times, a Vatican spokesman said that church magistrates may have allowed the limited use of wiretaps.
“In the past, we’ve said, ‘Oh, there might be corruption in the Vatican,’ but now we have it pretty clear,” said Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper. “There was a big problem there in the Roman curia that needs cleaning up.”
Then last weekend came the news that the only cardinal elector from the United Kingdom, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, would bow out of the conclave, following allegations he had made unwanted sexual advances toward priests years ago.
On Sunday, he acknowledged engaging in unspecified sexual misbehavior and apologized for those actions.
And some of the cardinals who are expected to vote on a new pope have arrived in Rome under a cloud of controversy.
The group Catholics United is petitioning Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, to recuse himself following the release of records that show he shielded abusive priests from the authorities.
After announcing he would step down as pope last month, Benedict bemoaned “divisions in the body of the church” that clearly made the Vatican hard to govern.
The group is also calling on other cardinals tarnished by scandal to step aside. That includes Cardinal Sean Brady of Ireland, who has apologized for failing to report one of the country’s worst serial abusers to the police, and Cardinal Justin Rigali, the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, who presided over an archdiocese that failed to remove priests accused of abuse from active ministry.
Some scholars say the situation underscores the imperative for the church to get much tougher on bishops who covered up the abuse, which the church hierarchy has mostly refused to do.
“Were I voting, and I’m not, it seems to me the number-one issue in the conclave should be who is going to get a hold of a full-blown, top-down response to the sex abuse scandal,” said Christopher Bellitto, a historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “Who is going to read the riot act and actually do something about bishops who moved pedophiles around?”
But some church leaders say it is unfair to view the papal transition solely through the lens of controversy.
“I really think focusing on the problems of the church is the wrong direction,” said Bishop Robert P. Deeley, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Boston, after a Mass on Thursday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross honoring the papacy of Benedict XVI.
He pointed to the crowds that gathered to wish Benedict farewell, as well as the many faithful Catholics in Boston and the world over.
“What am I seeing? I’m seeing what Pope Benedict taught us to see, that Jesus is alive,” he said.
On a post to his blog published Friday night, O’Malley steered clear of the recent controversies, as he described the first days of his trip to Rome: the flurry among Logan Airport officials to get him there on time after his flight was delayed; his brief personal goodbye to Benedict, in which he assured him of the prayers of the people of Boston; the scene in St. Peter’s Square, as he watched a helicopter carry Benedict away and heard onlookers shout “Viva il Papa!”
He included photos he took with his iPhone within the frescoed walls of Clementine Hall, as his red-capped peers gathered before the enthroned pontiff.
As the deliberations begin, many Vatican analysts have noted that even Benedict seemed frustrated in the days leading up to his departure. The shy 85-year-old theologian bucked centuries of tradition and retired, acknowledging the problems of the church had become too difficult for him to handle at his advanced age.
After announcing he would step down last month, Benedict bemoaned “divisions in the body of the church” that clearly made the Vatican hard to govern, and that seemed to contribute to his resignation. Last week as he departed Vatican City, he spoke of the “great burden” he felt as pope, and of “times when the Lord seemed to be sleeping.”
Tom Roberts, editor at large of the National Catholic Reporter, said the big picture suggests that there are major problems in the church’s governance and culture.
“It’s a culture that demands secrecy, that is about accumulating power and influence, and keeping your secrets,” he said. “The old palace doesn’t hold those secrets anymore. You can’t do it in the information age — you can’t use the language of accountability and transparency and not be that.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author, and culture editor of America Magazine, said that by any measure, “the recent revelations are horrifying and depressing.”
Martin said, however, that Christians believe the church has always been filled with sin, and yet remain confident the Holy Spirit will guide the church through the most tumultuous of times.
“The first pope, St. Peter, denied Jesus three times; you can’t get more sinful and imperfect than that,” he said.
Chad Pecknold, a theologian at the Catholic University of America, noted that the church has survived some famously corrupt papacies, such as the Borgias’ during the Renaissance, a period tainted by lust and treachery.
“We’ve had two incredibly saintly, holy men in the last half-century,” he said. “The church looks pretty darn good if you compare it to the really low points in the history of the church.”Lisa Wangsness
can be reached at