by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
"The corruption of the best is the worst!" Another way we can express this ancient Latin adage is with a famous saying attributed to Lord Acton: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely!" During this last leg of my Roman sojourn another major scandal has emerged from the dark shadows into the full light of day, this time concerning secret Vatican documents, leaked by a Spanish monsignor (Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, an official in the Holy See’s department of economic affairs) and his female colleague (Francesca Chaouqui, a public relations consultant!).
Two books have made their appearance as a result of those leaked documents: "Via Crucis" by Gianluigi Nuzzi (who likewise penned the tell-all book arising from Vatileaks I during the pontificate of Benedict XVI) and "Avarizia" by Emiliano Fittipaldi.
The leaked documents reveal how several Vatican officials have abused their positions of power and authority in order to live luxuriant lifestyles contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and the reforms of Pope Francis who, from the outset of his pontificate, expressed his sincere desire that the Church should be "poor and for the poor."
This nauseating behavior is then linked to the bad habit of sprinkling holy water on incompetence, inertia, lack of accountability and transparency, as well as the gross, selfish pursuit of material wealth and other temporal benefits – even when doing so means putting innocent people's welfare (physical and spiritual) at risk; and, in the process, making fools of themselves and their supposedly beloved institutions.
When the books appeared last week in Rome, I was unable to purchase them due to their sell-out status the very first day. Of course, Italians love gossip – especially when it concerns the Church. Immediately, Fr. Federico Lombardi (director of the Vatican Press Office) dismissed the books as lacking substance or as containing nothing new. Given his widely held reputation as a spin-doctor, those denials were not taken very seriously by many. When Cardinal George Pell (the Pope’s point-man on economic reforms) essentially echoed his statements, people began to take notice since Cardinal Pell is universally regarded as a “straight-shooter."
Indeed, the story had a rather short shelf-life in media around the world outside Italy since the Lombardi-Pell statements have proven accurate. The big story is that there is really no story, for the most part, inasmuch as most of what is reported has already been known and many of the abuses have already been dealt with.
The story behind the story is that the two accused of the leaks were personal appointees of Pope Francis himself; in fact, when Chaouqui’s suitability was questioned initially, the Pope kept her on-board. And so, aside from the criminal nature of their acts, one must add to the mix an astonishing lack of loyalty, reminiscent of "the butler’s" actions with Pope Benedict. Of course, disloyalty and betrayal are not unknown in the history of the Church; one need only recall the behavior of Judas. Undoubtedly, this has been preying on the Pope’s mind, causing him to address the issue during his Angelus address today (November 8):
"I know that many of you have been upset by the news circulating in recent days concerning the Holy See’s confidential documents that were taken and published. For this reason, I want to tell you, first of all, that stealing those documents was a crime. It’s a deplorable act that does not help. I personally had asked for that study to be carried out and both I and my advisers were well acquainted with (the contents of) those documents and steps have been taken that have started to bear fruit, some of them even visible.
"Therefore I wish to reassure you that this sad event certainly does not deter me from the reform project that we are carrying out, together with my advisers and with the support of all of you. Yes, with the support of the whole Church because the Church renews itself with prayer and the daily holiness of each baptized person.
"I therefore thank you and ask you to continue to pray for the Pope and the Church, without getting upset or troubled but proceeding with faith and hope.”
It might be useful to reflect on these matters theologically for a bit and then to comment on some of the specifics.
Sin, hypocrisy and scandal are, unfortunately, facts of ecclesial life – and always have been. The Bible teaches us that even the just man sins seven times a day. Except for Our Lord and Our Lady, we are all sinners from popes and princes to paupers. But not all sin equates to hypocrisy and/or scandal.
Hypocrisy derives from two Greek words, meaning "to judge beneath the surface" and relates to the world of ancient Greek drama when actors wore stylized masks to hide their real-life identities from their audiences. All hypocrites are sinners, but not all sinners are hypocrites.
The Greek New Testament word for sin is "harmartia," which literally means "to miss the mark," like an archer missing his target. We are sinners because (to one degree or another) we miss the mark of holiness due to human weakness and frailty. Hypocrites, however, are those individuals who pay lip service to truth and goodness and yet whose acts blatantly contradict their professed beliefs. Consequently, hypocrites deliberately aim to trick people into believing that they are really truthful and good when really they are not.
Scandal derives from the Greek word "skandalon," which is an "obstacle," or literally, "something that blocks one's pathway." Scandals occur when private evil or sinful acts are made public in such a way that they not only contribute to an increase of social sin, but likewise negatively impact the faith of innocent people. Judas wasn't just a sinner (like Peter), but also a hypocrite and a cause of scandal. He held the money purse (like some Vatican officials) – and robbed from it. He kept Jesus' company as one of His original disciples and apostles, all the while making backdoor deals with the Jewish religious leaders that led directly to the crucifixion of his Lord and Master. Now other Judases in the Vatican are paying lip service to Pope Francis but then stabbing him in the back in an ill-fated attempt to topple his financial reforms.
These scandals prove Pope Francis to be prophetic with his strong critiques of materialism spot-on. Following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict, he is calling a spade a spade and is at least trying to uproot the systemic corruption in the Vatican, for which he is paying a heavy price – a sort of crucifixion.
On Friday, November 6, Pope Francis, in his homily at Domus Santa Marta, preached against bishops and priests who are materialistic ("attaccati ai soldi") and who are therefore corrupt. In "Via Crucis," the author speaks of certain Vatican officials as "merchants in the temple," whom the Lord drove out because they had made His Father's house a den of thieves. Which is why the English translation of the book bears the title, "Merchants in the Temple."
Piggy-backing on that title, newspapers in Italy have been speaking about the Pope and "the Pharaohs of the Vatican" ("i Faraoni del Vaticano"), that is, those who oppose his reforms of the Roman Curia and are willing to do so at any cost.
Not to be ignored are the journalists who claim to be good Catholics, but who violate ethical norms, using documents leaked in violation of the "Pontifical Secret." Again, we are faced with an unseemly collaboration between Vatican employees and the media. Naturally, the greater fault lies with the workers of the Church and, thus, the need for the Pope to command more respect and to discipline the "troops." Some observers have asked that if Vatileaks I helped bring down the pontificate of Pope Benedict, could Vatileaks II do the same for Pope Francis. As Our Lord taught, "A house divided, cannot stand.”
Now, onto some of the particulars found in the two books:
1. An impression has been created that the corrupt officials are all clergy; in reality, it is fair to say that the vast majority are laity and that higher-level clergy (like cardinals and bishops) are not largely in play. However, presenting the corruption as clergy-generated feeds into an all-too-well-known anti-clericalism in certain quarters, especially in the media.
2. One of the "perks" consistently highlighted is that of Vatican housing being provided employees at vastly discounted rates. First, it is important to underscore that such housing is available to all Vatican workers – clergy and laity alike – and that all such renters (including cardinals) pay for their apartments. That said, what is wrong with giving workers a break on rent? In other contexts, would that not be seen as a practice of a good and grateful employer?
3. Another comment is that these apartments are "lavish." I have visited the Vatican-owned apartments of cardinals and laity; I have never found them lavish. They are often spacious, however, the cardinals (for example) rarely live alone, housing their entire staffs with them. Furthermore, any improvements made to the property are the responsibility of the tenant, not the Vatican. It seems that the one significant violation of that policy occurred at the hands of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former Secretary of State; readers may recall that many Vatican "insiders" repeatedly urged Pope Benedict to deal with him.
4. An accusation is made that most of the Peter’s Pence has gone toward the maintenance of the Holy See, rather than papal charities. Truth be told, from the early Middle Ages (when the collection began in England), it has always been understood that the monies would be placed at the discretion of the Pope and, historically, have been used precisely for regular operational expenses, in addition to charitable causes.
5. A serious charge is raised that the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (aka, Vatican Bank) received millions of euros in Mass stipends (to be distributed to needy priests in Third World countries), with only a small percentage actually being given. If true, this is a gross violation of Church law, let alone a sin against justice (whereby Masses are to be offered in a timely manner for the intentions of the donors).
6. Another real estate-related accusation is that properties not used by Vatican workers are handled in, shall we say, "shady" ways. All kinds of deals and financial manipulation apparently occur with great regularity.
7. Another "perk" repeatedly mentioned is the availability of the Vatican commissary to its employees, so that groceries, pharmaceuticals and gasoline (petrol) are purchased at greatly reduced prices and without taxes (as would be the case beyond the Vatican’s borders). Again, it is worth repeating that such a policy is a sign of largesse. The problem is that it is terribly abused. Some have commented that if all the cigarettes sold through the Vatican commissary were consumed by Vatican employees, the entire Curia would have died of lung cancer decades ago! In other words, people are using their employee status to purchase materials for others and, in many instances in all likelihood, conducting a black market business on the side. Just last week, the noted American Vaticanista John Allen admitted that his own wife had used the pass of a Vatican employee to purchase items!
8. Finally, the matter of the "Pontifical Secret." An old joke in the Vatican defines a pontifical secret as something that everyone knows, except the Pope! To be sure, divulging a pontifical secret is both an excommunicable offense and a crime under the laws of the Vatican City State; enforcement is necessary if it is to be taken seriously. That said, not a few observers have suggested that perhaps a bit too much is brought under the umbrella of a pontifical secret. We have seen how holding people to secrecy in the Church can aid and abet incredibly sinful activity (Have we forgotten so soon how much of the clergy sex abuse problem went on for years as witnesses or victims were held to secrecy? Or, how demands for secrecy were used by malevolent people in the Family Synods of 2014 and 2015?). Why, then, should a matter like financial reform come under the category of a pontifical secret? Discretion, yes, but the highest level of confidentiality? Such an inclusion smacks of a lack of transparency in an organization already accused of cloak-and-dagger modes of operation. Such an inclusion also dilutes the real meaning and purpose of a pontifical secret.
To sum up: The agents of the leaks are unethical, disloyal children of the Church, who should recall the French pun and proverb: "He who bites the Pope's nose, dies". The authors who used the material are not much better, despite protestations that doing so was motivated by genuine love for the Church (Nuzzi, for instance, presents himself as a practicing Catholic, whose children attend Catholic schools). One cannot help but conclude that a desire to maintain the corrupt status quo loomed large with the "leakers" and a desire to cash in on a good story moved the latter.
Dredging up old material likewise smacks of the tactics used by the media in regard to the sex-abuse crisis in the Church. In the lead-up to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, most major media outlets figured out a way to talk about the abuse issue – even though that has been resolutely handled by the American bishops for years now. As a matter of fact, recent data show that only six accusations have been made in the past few years (with over 40,000 priests in the nation). So, what’s the reason for the story? Nothing other than an attempt to bloody up the Church, so that her role as a voice for morality can be muzzled.
If the authors were truly interested in financial reform in the Church, they would have praised the impressive work of the Pell Commission to date and, yes, also addressed matters still requiring attention. That they did not do so suggests ill will.
Jesus told us that we would always have the poor with us. Similarly, we can say that we shall always have some corruption in our midst because where you have human beings, you have the potential for sin. The goal of the Pope and his reformers is to temper this corruption, even if never totally eradicating it. Another saying of Our Lord reminds that us that whatever is hidden will be revealed – perhaps additional motivation for true reform and transparency!