Veteran reporter debunks myths surrounding the Vatican

  • October 5, 2011

OTTAWA - Veteran Rome-based reporter and author John Allen Jr. says there is no such thing as “the Vatican” as commonly portrayed by the mainstream media.

“Only seen from afar” is the Vatican perceived as a bunch of “Stepford wives all in lockstep,” the National Catholic Reporter’s senior correspondent recently told the Canadian Catholic School Trustees Association annual conference here.

Those who work in the Vatican come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have sometimes widely differing viewpoints, he said. 

“We think we know what classes of people are like,” he said, noting these stereotypes are often wrong and this is especially true of those who work in the Roman Curia.

Allen, whose most recent book is The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, also blasted the myth of “ultra-centralization” and the idea that there is “some central figure who controls everything.” The Catholic Church is “top-down on doctrine” but “bottom up on everything else” when it comes to administration, finances, personnel and management, he said.

On these other issues, “Rome is not even aware they are happening,” he said. The total work force for the Roman Curia is 2,170 people who serve 1.2 billion Catholics. 

“The Vatican does not have the tools to micromanage,” he said.

This myth of central control plays into debates about clerical sexual abuse, Allen said, because it underlies assumptions among victims’ and their lawyers that there is some “smoking gun in the Vatican” responsible for the crisis.

Another myth is that the Vatican is ultra-wealthy, he said. The annual operating budget of the Vatican City State is $270 million, he said, comparing that with the annual operating budget of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., which is $1.2 billion. The Catholic Church in the United States collects $200 million a week, almost enough to fund the Vatican for a year, he said.

As for the buildings, real estate and money in the patrimony of the Holy See, Allen said it amounts to an endowment of $1 billion. The endowment of Notre Dame is $30 billion and that of Harvard University is $100 billion.

The Holy See’s financial means are “not as endless as people imagine,” he said.

As for the Vatican art, it is “literally priceless,” Allen said, because it can never be sold but is kept for the benefit of humankind and requires millions of dollars to maintain and restore. Though the Vatican Museum collects entry fees, that money is used to defray the mammoth maintenance and restoration costs.

Another myth is Vatican secrecy, he said. According to the popular views, everything is a mystery, a secret in an ultra-Byzantine, closed society. “The problem of the Vatican isn’t secrecy, it is singularity and it is often easy to get it wrong,” he said.

He told an anecdote of an American reporter just assigned to cover the Vatican after covering the statehouse in Albany, New York. He came to a news conference in which then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) spoke on the publication of his encyclical Dominus Iesus. The reporter was listening to the translation of the cardinal’s Italian and his eyes were glazing over, Allen said. Allen later had to explain to him what the story was.

The Vatican is not impenetrable; it is idiosyncratic, he said. One needs to know Italian, how the Church understands herself and the internal language of the Vatican such as the differences between congregations and commissions and other aspects of the curial set up.

Allen also criticized the myth of careerism that assumes that most people in the curia are angling for a step up the ladder. 

“Nobody applies to work in the Vatican and most have no idea how they got there,” he said. Some people do make a career out of working there, but most rotate out after five years or so.

He also dismissed the popular view that cardinals are “jockeying or scheming to become pope.” Cardinals are “true believers,” he said, who regard the Pope as the Successor of Peter. Thus, they know the saintly requirements for the job and are very aware of their own humanity.

And “grubby human reasons” also come into play, he said. Cardinals know being pope is “a tough gig” and a “life sentence” that requires you to be a living saint, CEO of one of the largest organizations in the world and a representative of the whole Christian family, “a bone-crushing impossibility.”

The life of a retired cardinal in Rome can allow him to continue to be invited to the best events, influence favoured movements and perhaps write or pursue other interests, he said.

Allen said popes need the ability to laugh at themselves as a survival strategy. He told of having written a quick book on Pope Benedict XVI that made predictions about how his pontificate would unfold. He received a message from the Vatican spokesman telling him the Pope had read his book and wanted him to know that he was thankful Allen had given thought to how his pontificate would unfold so now he didn’t have to.

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