Long, hot summer: Vatican faces external and internal challenges

VATICAN CITY – Early July is when things usually slow down at the Vatican, as top church officials wrap up loose ends and prepare to go on vacation.

But the mood at the Vatican this year is anything but serene. Pope Benedict XVI and his key advisers are facing a series of external and internal conflicts that threaten to make this a long, hot summer of problem-solving and strategizing.

One hesitates to use the word “unprecedented” when writing about the Vatican. But it’s difficult to remember a time when so much bad news has landed at the Vatican’s doorstep.

The Belgian police raid on the archdiocesan headquarters and residences near Brussels June 24 left Vatican officials stunned, and illustrated just how much the sex abuse crisis has lowered the church’s standing in the eyes of some civil authorities.

The country’s bishops were held for nine hours as police confiscated files, computers and cell phones. The ultimate affront came when the police drilled into the tombs of two dead cardinals and inserted cameras to look for supposed hidden documents – which were not found.

The police action brought sharp criticism from Pope Benedict, who was careful, however, to defend the right of civil authorities to investigate priestly sex abuse. The problem is that the church also claims a responsibility to investigate such abuse according to church law.

In the Vatican’s view, the church and civil responsibilities are parallel, but in Belgium they collided head-on. Police confiscated more than 400 files belonging to an investigating commission created by the church, prompting commission members to resign, saying they could no longer do their work and that the privacy of victims had been violated.

Belgian officials dismissed that argument. Their unspoken presumption seemed to be that because of their inaction in the past, church leaders cannot be trusted to act in the public interest on sex abuse allegations.

This is a huge issue for the church, and Vatican diplomats will now work quietly with Belgian authorities to try to restore some measure of autonomy for bishops’ handling of sex abuse cases. The fear is that other countries may take similar action.

Four days after the Belgian raid, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that said the Vatican, even as a sovereign foreign state, did not have immunity from potential liability for the actions of a priest accused of sexual abuse. Although the case hinges on a peculiarity of Oregon employment law, which is unlikely to affect similar lawsuits elsewhere, the action allows a lawsuit against the Vatican to go forward, raising a series of new difficulties.

One is a basic public relations problem: The Vatican will be going to court against an alleged victim of sexual abuse by a priest. It will also be emphasizing that priests and bishops are not “employees” of the Vatican – an argument that, whatever its legal merits, may leave the impression that the institutional church is trying to distance itself from the actions of its pastoral ministers, instead of assuming responsibility.

That’s not how Vatican officials see it, of course.

“We need to explain what the universal church is and what the role of the Holy See is, with its various levels of responsibility, and show that it’s a mistake to try at all costs to involve the Vatican in juridical responsibilities that it does not have,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told Catholic News Service.

In Italy, meanwhile, Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, a former Vatican official, was formally placed under investigation by judicial authorities in connection with a corruption scandal. Cardinal Sepe, currently archbishop of Naples, headed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples from 2001 to 2006, and has denied all wrongdoing.

In Italy, being investigated is not like being charged with a crime. But the headlines left many Italians presuming guilt, not innocence.

It also left some inside the Vatican wondering how much oversight there was over the evangelization congregation’s financial activities, which range from funding missionary projects to managing real estate in Rome. For centuries, the congregation has enjoyed a certain financial autonomy.

The developments in Italy, Belgium and the United States all posed new challenges in the church’s relationship with civil law and civil authorities. But the most shocking – and surprisingly public – conflict at the Vatican in recent days was an internal church matter between two cardinals.

In May, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna told journalists that Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former secretary of state, had once blocked an investigation of sexual abuse and had offended victims by calling their complaints “petty gossip.”

On June 28, Cardinal Schonborn met with Pope Benedict to “clarify” his statements on these and other issues, including priestly celibacy. Then Cardinal Sodano and the current secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, joined the meeting – in what must have been a fascinating exchange.

The statement issued afterward chastised Cardinal Schonborn, saying essentially that a cardinal does not level accusations against a fellow cardinal – that’s something to be handled by the pope. It also tried to put Cardinal Sodano’s “petty gossip” remark in context.

Cardinal Sodano is not just any cardinal. He is dean of the College of Cardinals, the prelate who, in the case of papal death, would preside over the funeral and lead the church through the interregnum. It was therefore inconceivable to many in the Roman Curia that Cardinal Schonborn’s finger-pointing would be allowed to go unchallenged.

It was interesting that the Vatican statement did not deal with the substance of Cardinal Schonborn’s criticism, instead emphasizing the dictate of discretion. Some critics said this was the Vatican reverting to its old ways of secrecy.

Vatican officials take a different perspective. They said that in bringing together the cardinals and publishing an account of their meeting, the pope was demonstrating his direct and more transparent approach to problems, and his determination not to let such wounds fester.

Likewise, they said, his meeting July 1 with German Bishop Walter Mixa, who resigned after being accused of hitting students and financial impropriety, was a remarkably open treatment of a problem that in the past would have been a strictly closed-door affair. The Vatican published a lengthy statement after the encounter, as the pope sought to turn a potentially divisive moment for the church in Germany into an occasion of unity.

As he faces these and other challenges, Father Lombardi said, Pope Benedict has tried above all to be a “protagonist of reconciliation.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.