The human factor: Scandal highlights devotion, excess at Vatican

Depending on what commentary one reads, recent leaks of internal Vatican memos and private letters to Pope Benedict XVI are the work either of praiseworthy whistle-blowers or criminal moles.

Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist who published a book based on dozens of private Vatican documents, said his main source was part of a group of Vatican employees who wanted to “help” Pope Benedict XVI clean up the church by revealing evidence of corruption, infighting and power struggles.

But Archbishop Angelo Becciu, a top official in the Vatican Secretariat of State, said leaking the material was “behavior unjustifiable from every point of view.”

Writing in the Vatican newspaper May 29, a few days after the pope’s personal assistant Paolo Gabriele was arrested on charges of possessing stolen documents, the archbishop insisted that one cannot steal documents and publish them in the name of renewing the church.

“There cannot be a renewal that quashes moral law,” he wrote.

On May 30, Pope Benedict himself voiced regret over the scandal, and deplored “increasing conjecture, amplified by the communications media, which is entirely gratuitous, goes beyond the facts and presents a completely unrealistic image of the Holy See.” He also affirmed his trust in all those who help him “in silent faithfulness and with a spirit of sacrifice.”

Yet Pope Benedict isn’t the first pope, even in recent history, to receive unsolicited and questionable help from anonymous Vatican employees.

In 1999, when Blessed John Paul II was pope, a retired Vatican official named Msgr. Luigi Marinelli anonymously published “Via col Vento in Vaticano”‘ (“Gone with the Wind in the Vatican”), a book targeting career climbing and abuses of office. Like Nuzzi’s book, it shot to the top of the Italian best-seller lists.

Filled with examples of greed, corruption and immoral conduct, the book did not include stolen confidential documents, and generally did not name names, except when trying to show how prelates who had been seminary classmates joined forces to promote favored candidates to high positions in the Vatican or in Italian dioceses.

The Roman Rota, a Vatican canonical court, deemed Msgr. Marinelli’s book libelous and ordered him to have his publisher halt its distribution.

Whatever the motivations of those responsible, leak scandals then and now have been fueled by the public’s prejudices about the Vatican — the aura of mystery, power and wealth that are much more the stuff of trashy novels than reality.

Of course, an institution so old is bound to have a checkered past, including a fair share of sleaze, influence-peddling and patronage. The Vatican may be the site of more prayer and good works per acre than any other state on earth, but it is still run by people. This human factor ensures it’s not heaven on earth. [More]