Stephen McGinty: Vatican’s power vacuum

IT WAS a bright cold day in October, and the clocks were striking noon when I was forcibly ejected from the Vatican.

IT WAS a bright cold day in October, and the clocks were striking noon when I was forcibly ejected from the Vatican.

I was in Rome for The Scotsman to cover the elevation of Archbishop Keith O’Brien to the College of Cardinals in the autumn of 2003 and after the public ceremony in St Peter’s Square found myself corralled behind a waist-high wooden barrier about 100 metres from where Scotland’s newest Prince of the Church appeared to be giving an impromptu press conference.

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In those days, you never really knew what O’Brien might say and so every opportunity had to be covered in case you missed a line. The official route to his enclosure meant backtracking through the crowds and weaving along a waist-high warren. So, in the interests of expediency and journalistic diligence, I decided to opt for a short cut – I leapt over the barrier.

Big mistake. I got, perhaps, 20m when I heard the swift dull thud of running feet and thought: “Oh no.” Do you remember the scene in Good Fellas when Joe Pesci thinks he’s about to become a “made guy”? He heads through an unknown door in his smart new suit and tie full of hope, then notes the cold, concrete floor. For a split second, just before they put two bullets in his brain, he realises the error of his ways.

Well, on that day, I was Joe Pesci: brainless. As soon as I span around, all I could see were two pairs of hands and the angry faces of the plain-clothed Swiss Guards. Clearly not content with my error, I immediately wished to compound it by wriggling one arm free to point to my press pass, perhaps hoping that they would appreciate the difference between an over-keen reporter and an armed assassin disguised as an over-keen reporter. It didn’t work. Instead, the pass was roughly torn from my lapel and I was frog-marched to the boundary of the Vatican state and given a helpful shove back into Italy.

I’ve often thought my experience works as a rough metaphor for the Vatican. It can be a beautiful, spiritual place – but step out of line and things can get ugly. Looking back, I don’t quite know how – stripped of my pass – I managed to make it back into the Vatican that very afternoon. I think one of the Catholic Church’s press team, who took a similar short cut – but crucially wasn’t spotted – helped spirit me in to the vast auditorium where the new cardinals, gathered from around the world, were entertaining friends, family and pilgrims. I’m glad he did, for it gave me the brief opportunity to meet the man who shocked the world this week, or at least its 
1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, or Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as he was back then. I had written to him a few years previously to request an interview when I was researching a biography of Cardinal Thomas Winning and received perhaps the politest knock-back of my professional career “signed in Christ Joseph Ratzinger”. So, when I spotted him walking along the long-carpeted corridor I introduced myself. I can remember almost nothing about our brief conversation, only that he was polite, humble and when we shook hands, noted that he had the softest hands.

Nobody expected him to succeed John Paul II. His own biographer, John L Allen, concluded his book with reasons why he would not become pope. And now, a decade on from our meeting, he has decided to resign – the first Pope to do so in six centuries – and announced on Thursday that he will spend the rest of his life behind the high stone walls of Vatican City, as he said: “Hidden from the world”.

I’ve been thinking this week: what power does the Papacy hold today? It is centuries since it had a standing army, when the Pope ruled as monarch over the papal states, when kings and queens were kept in line, fearful of the threat of excommunication. Stalin famously said, mocking the Vatican’s lack of hard power: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” And yet many believe it was Pope John Paul II who helped to bring about the demise of communism. Personally, I think former US president Ronald Reagan would make a more convincing argument on that score as his insistence on repeatedly racking up military spending forced the Soviet Union to compete and so helped to bankrupt the nation. However, in 1978 the election of a Pope from Poland, a nation under the heel of a Communist boot, allowed him to turn his considerable wattage on illuminating the inhumanity of the Soviet system.

For it is true that the Pope lacks battalions, the Vatican has no “hard power” to exert, but when it comes to “soft power” it has the equivalent of a vast army. It is best we park the military analogies, as the last thing the Pope ever wishes is war. Pope John Paul II tried repeatedly to prevent the invasion of Iraq. He may have failed but the fact that Tony Blair, George W Bush, General Colin Powell and many other politicians sought audiences is an indication of the authority the position still commands. And, in the end, the Vatican’s diplomats did help to convince the Muslim nations that this was not a war against Islam.

The pope has a role as a moral teacher. He is a voice of conscience for the people of the world on social and political issues. At its best, the Papacy can be a force for tremendous good. Its primary concern is propagating the word of Jesus Christ, whose simple message was love thy neighbour. If such an idea could be replicated around the world, then almost all social evils such as conflict and hunger would be eliminated, but it can’t and it never will because although humans have the capacity for love, they also have the capacity for greed and hate and selfishness. The Catholic Church’s role is to point to the top of the mountain – a destination we know in our hearts we can never reach – but nevertheless urge us all on.

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The power of example was illustrated best at the funeral of John Paul II in 2005 when five million people converged on Rome. I remembering speaking to a young American priest, a member of the Legion of Christ, a Catholic movement led by a charismatic Mexican priest called Marcial Maciel. He said of the millions in attendance: “This is not Woodstock. What you are seeing here, in this square, is a sacrament – an outward sign of an inward grace – I think it is Pope John Paul II’s last gift to us. His death has achieved all that we see around us. His death has brought so many different people together.” I thought of him again a year later when Benedict XVI dismissed Maciel, the movement’s leader, for serial sexual abuse. What is concerning is that for many years this figure was protected both by John Paul II and his secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, against investigations by Ratzinger, who, only when he became Pope had the authority to act.

While Benedict XVI retreats into retirement behind the stone walls, it is Sodano, who as Dean of the College of Cardinals who will preside over the daily General Congregation meetings of cardinals, which will essentially shape the discussions on who will be the next pope. Yet, Sodano is, in many ways, the public face of the Vatican at its worst when it comes to tackling sexual abuse.

For years, Sodano stonewalled and presented an image of ambivalence and denial. In 2010, during Easter Mass, he compared criticism of the Church on the issue to “petty gossip”. However, he will be one of the major players attempting to ensure his chosen candidate becomes the next successor to St Peter. For people should not be mistaken into believing that what will happen over the next few weeks will be a serene transition with a successor chosen by the Holy Spirit.

While each of the cardinals are clearly men of God, religious leaders who have devoted a life-time of service to the Church, they are, first and foremost, men, with all which that entails, including egos, tempers and, among a few, a desire for the ultimate control of the Church. There will be discreet politicking and attempts to patch up old feuds in an attempt to secure the necessary votes for their chosen candidate.

I remember once interviewing the late Cardinal Lopez Truijillo, the former Archbishop of Medellin in Columbia, who had been described as the most divisive figure in the college of cardinals on account of the right-wing forces with which he formed alliances to battle liberation theology in the 1980s.

The interview in his office in Rome was to be about the pro-life initiative set up by Thomas Winning, but after 40 minutes in which he refused to answer a single question about Scotland’s then cardinal, and, after one final clumsy segue by myself, he stood up, offered me a chocolate, a copy of his new book in Italian and showed me the door. “Winning is one man,” he said with a shrug. The Pope is something more.

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