The Pope’s Italian Problem

Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Pope Benedict XVINot since 1415 when Gregory XII resigned to heal the so-called “Western Schism” has a Pope of  the Roman Catholic Church abdicated his post as the successor to St. Peter. Now, Benedict the XVI has issued his renuntiatio citing failing health as  the reason for the move.  Rumors have swirled since publication in the Italian newspaper, Repubblica, (here) that the Pope resigned to diffuse a burgeoning crisis in the Curia over allegations of a gay cabal of Vatican prelates being blackmailed by male prostitutes. The Vatican flatly denies that allegation and no one has come forward to challenge that denial. Fueling the rumors are the inconvenient resignation of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien over allegations of  sexual abuse of  three seminarians. O’Brien has flatly rejected those charges too, but resigned the following day saying his decision was based “on health grounds,” and that his hospitalization for cellulitis and gout at the end of 2012 was proof thereof. That’s eerily similar to Benedict’s demurrer and, coupled with several recent scandals (here) involving Vatican priests procuring gay prostitutes, have left some observers skeptical, indeed.

A Little Church History

But the truth may have more to do with Gregory XII than Rome’s gay escorts. The 15th Century pontiff was the center of a political crisis that even Hollywood couldn’t dream up.  Elected Pope in 1406 by a conclave of only 15 cardinals, Gregory was made to promise that he would resign if   Antipope Benedict XIII, would likewise agree to resign ending an existing schism in the church’s leadership. The schism was based on the elevation of seven French cardinals to the throne of St. Peter during a 70 year period in the 14th Century, thus supplanting the power of Italian-born cardinals from whose ranks all popes were previously chosen except St. Peter himself. This Avignon Papacy, named for the French palace where the non-Italians sat in residence, threatened to move the center of the catholic world westward away from Rome. The Italians may have had good reason to worry as the French prelates came more and more under the influence of  the French crown. Denigrating the French coup as the  “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy,” the Italians were determined to do something about it. The Italians persuaded Gregory XI (a predecessor of Gregory XII) to return his papacy to Rome, much to the dismay of his fellow Frenchmen. Not taking the matter lightly, officials at Avignon elected their own popes, the last of whom was Benedict XIII.

When neither  Gregory XII nor Benedict XIII opted to fulfill their end of the resignation  bargain, the Church was thrown into even more crisis with political maneuvering by each’s red- robed supporters resulting in palace intrigue worthy of   the Medicis (whose own candidate would arrive later), and growing concern from the secular world whose stability was threatened by instability in the Church. To stop the blood-letting, Gregory ordered his 15 cardinal constituency into house arrest with strict orders not to talk to Benedict’s gang. They refused, some escaped,  and negotiations went full-bore to depose both pontiffs by the edict of the Council of Pisa. Both popes ignored the convocation and after a conclave-packing scheme failed miserably, the good cardinals at Pisa did manage to elect yet another pope, Alexander V.  Alexander V would die shortly thereafter only to be succeeded by the Medici-backed pope, John XXIII.  The schism finally ended at the Council of Constance when the Three-Popes Controversy came to an inglorious halt under political pressure from King Sigismund  of Hungary, who understood that the schism threatened him and the throne of the Holy Roman Empire where Sigismund’s father, Charles IV,  ruled the roost. Tiring of the Council’s stagnation caused by votes  purely along lines of nationality, Sigismund decided to go over the heads of the parochial cardinals and  pressure the three popes individually. Sigismund had all the powers of persuasion that you would expect of  the son of a man who issued the ancient world’s political bible  for empire building known as the Golden Bull.  Over time, Sigismund compelled the three leaders to resign, with Gregory XII leading the way at the Council by his proxies. The cardinals accepted the resignations and the matter was finally resolved.

What Goes Around

German-born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger ascended to the papacy in 2005 and took the title, Benedict XVI. To the Italian cardinals who make up the largest bloc of  Vatican power, Benedict XVI might well have been Antipope Benedict XIII.  Seen as a reward for Ratzinger’s work in the famous or infamous  Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (you may know it by its more famous name, the Roman Inquisition), his elevation was not welcomed by all in the Holy See. Some saw it as a public relations nightmare given the Pope’s scandalous memo ordering priests to refrain from reporting child sexual abuse allegations to civil authorities.  The attitude was further reinforced when Benedict began installing German prelates in key Vatican positions because, as some have surmised, Benedict did not trust the entrenched power of the Italian-dominated Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia. This point was made doubly clear with the appointment of  two Germans,  Ernst Von Freyberg, to be the new head of the Vatican Bank, and Georg Gänswein as Archbishop of the Papal Household. Both are key positions of power and influence at the Vatican. Italian cardinals voiced opposition in each appointment but were ignored.  They even opposed one of their own, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the powerful Vatican Secretary of State – a close ally of the Pope’s.

The result is a Curia as split today as it was in 15th century and facing some of the greatest challenges in church history.  The child sexual abuse scandal shows no signs of waning as  allegations of church-sponsored harassment of victims came out last week from an alleged victim in Australia (here) . The church is under increasing pressure in Muslim countries to maintain itself as its brand of fundamentalism is being violently challenged by another. Churches in Africa and South America, where the religion continues to grow even as its loses members in America and Europe, are increasingly clamoring for more control over their congregations and more power in Rome. Some have even suggested an African or South American papal candidate.

Against this backdrop, Benedict, who clearly is in declining physical health — but not declining  mental health as some have suggested — made his decision. The power struggle within the church has taken its toll, and the 85-year-old prelate seems unwilling to battle forces both internal and external. It’s a Herculean task for even a younger man and his opponents have a 600 year head start in mastering Vatican intrigue. Benedict alluded to the power struggle in his last Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.  In that homily, the Pope urged the church to  put aside “individualism and rivalry.”  Many wonder if that platitude was meant more for the red-clad folks behind the altar rail than those in front of it. For their part, the Italian cardinals are determined to install one of  their own to stop the public relations  hemorrhaging wrought by the sexual abuse scandals and to keep the hard-fought and centuries old tradition of  Rome-centered power  intact.

Source: LIGNET and throughout.

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

38 thoughts on “The Pope’s Italian Problem”

  1. Moderators, this msg BB appears under multiple attacks, ( Little wonder , Turley Law Blog, #1 lol. )

    **Looks as if the Gov… Scum Bass-tards/Prevs, who ever has shown up.

    Moderators, please investigate & Flush as necessary. **

    Look Moderators, Flush Often, you can always apologize later.

  2. I find it impossible to fathom the rationalizations the caholics I know use to continue their faith in the RCC. I don’t even ask so as not to offend. Because, certainly, being forced to think of an answer would just cause them pain. And they have enough of that.

  3. Mark:
    Thanks for the insight into a great topic. My own view is that the next pope will be an Italian, for several reasons. First, Benedict increased the percentage of Italian cardinals from 17 percent to 20 percent. Second, the African hierarchy are even more homophobic than the Italians, virtually guaranteeing more controversy. Third, the Catholic hierarchy regards the present mess as a function of lax discipline and bad public relations, much as Republicans view their own problems. Therefore, the prevailing attitude will be to return to the familiar and double down on demands for strict adherence to orthodoxy and obedience to Rome. That approach won’t solve anything, of course, but it will probably reassure many traditional Catholics who have been traumatized by the events of the last decade.

    Swarthmore Mom:
    Thanks for the link to the Kung interview. I have always admired him. Although he is prohibited from officially teaching theology due to his criticism of papal infallibility, I have always believed that he was one of the victims of the backlash to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

    1. The most interesting thing I have read so far…Thank You Swarthmore mom!

  4. Keith O’Brien, British Cardinal, Admits To Sexual Misbehavior

    By RAPHAEL SATTER 03/03/13 03:57 PM ET EST AP

    LONDON — A Scottish cardinal on Sunday acknowledged having engaged in unspecified sexual misbehavior, apologized for his actions, and promised to stay out of the church’s public life in a statement that comes at an awkward time for the Vatican.

    Cardinal Keith O’Brien had been Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader until he resigned Monday from his position as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, a departure prompted by a newspaper report about unnamed priests’ allegations that he acted inappropriately toward them.

    O’Brien initially rejected the claims, saying he was resigning because he did not want to distract from the upcoming conclave of cardinals that is due to pick a successor to Benedict XVI, who resigned the papacy Thursday. O’Brien also became the first cardinal to recuse himself from the conclave because of personal scandal; other voting-age cardinals have in the past stayed home because of infirmity or because they were prevented by their governments from participating.

    On Sunday, the Catholic church in Scotland issued a statement quoting O’Brien as saying that there had been times “that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

    “To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness,” the statement continued. “To the Catholic church and people of Scotland, I also apologize. I will now spend the rest of my life in retirement. I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic church in Scotland.”

    O’Brien gave no clue as to what exactly his sexual misbehavior consisted of, but his statement is nonetheless another reminder of the church’s struggle shake off a litany of sex scandals, including those involving pedophile priests.

    The claims against O’Brien were first reported by The Observer newspaper.

    In its Feb. 24 edition, the British newspaper reported that O’Brien was alleged to have made what it described as “an inappropriate approach” to a seminarian after night prayers.

    The paper also said another priest had reported “inappropriate contact” with O’Brien following a visit to his parish, a second priest had reported “unwanted behavior” by the archbishop following a late-night drinking session, and that a third had reported being taken advantage of when he went to the archbishop for counseling.

    All four, the paper said, had sent letter of complaint to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, early last month.

    The paper did not cite a source for its reporting last week, but in this Sunday’s edition it quoted the still-unnamed former seminarian as saying that the church had failed to respond quickly and appropriately to his complaint.

    O’Brien has at times had a rocky tenure as a cardinal.

    In 2003, as a condition of assuming that rank, he was forced to issue a public pledge to defend church teaching on homosexuality, celibacy and contraception. He was pressured to make the pledge after he had called for a “full and open discussion” on such matters.

    At the time, O’Brien said he had been misunderstood and wanted to clarify his position. But statements made last week, before the scandal over his behavior broke, suggested he never really changed his mind.

    In an interview with the BBC, O’Brien said celibacy should be reconsidered because it’s not based on doctrine but rather church tradition and “is not of divine origin.”

    I agree that “celibacy should be reconsidered.”

  5. Swarthmore,
    Those American choices for Pope probably have child abuse skeletons in their closet, where some of their priests are hiding.

  6. If the rumors are true……

    Adult male priests pay adult male prostitutes for sex.
    This is such a huge scandal that the pope chooses to resign!! ??

    Adult male priest are proven pedophiles, and they get moved around surreptitiously to continue their revolting harmful destructive behavior!!??

    OS. ” Don’t tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe. “

    Says it all.

  7. My mother used to say its not the faith its the bureaucracy. She was so right the bureaucracy of the RCC doesn’t reflect the teachings of Christ. Just look at the vestments, the gold and a white helicopter to go a few miles or less. Its the show and the power that they love.
    People earn respect and reverence by their actions.

  8. Bruce E. Woych,

    Maybe we could put it this way. Recall the old adage that actions speak louder than words. A blogger I know uses this for his sig line:

    ” Don’t tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe. “

  9. Fascinating and well done. Thanks, Mark, for diminishing my ignorance a little about RCC history and today’s goings on..

  10. The amount of venom that exists against the Vatican and the Pope is clearly demonstrated in how much negative speculation has been circulated as narrative fact. Within the history of ideas this Pope is a true reformer. He has taken German protestantism and a good deal of humanism into the stride of staunch conservative immobility among Catholic theologians, and opened the door for a more grounded interpretation of the church and its position in contemporary global religion. Any serious review of his stated pespectives would have to compare them to philosophy as much as theology. A “revisionary” more than a visionary, perhaps; ..but even his resignation is a teaching praxis that has been poorly recognized.

    Of course, 600 years is a fascinating fact for such an expanse between such actions. But the truth is that stepping down in this historic contemporary context has a great deal more to say about the humility and the Church’s place on earth…than any claims to divine cults of personality or omnipotent power.

    1. “The amount of venom that exists against the Vatican and the Pope is clearly demonstrated in how much negative speculation has been circulated as narrative fact.”

      Bruce E. Woych,

      Yes it is true that the RCC has done good in its time. The venom you speak of goes to the fact that the rapes of children, that now seems to have been going on for perhaps 1,600 years, are heinous crimes. That they were done by those entrusted with guiding these children spiritually adds to the horror. Worse though, is that by inaction the RCC has sanctioned it. The fact of this destroys any moral basis that the RCC can claim. I am not attacking the Catholic Religion in this, I am attacking the institution that has claimed itself to assume the moral high-ground.

  11. You all saw it coming… So what if he blew the papacy thingy….. He’s just a man….

  12. I remember the latter part of John Paul II’s tenure. I have a great admiration of him. The issue of his health was a dichotomy for me. For one how he served to the very end giving his all despite his great disability is inspiring and a true champion to the faith. The other part of my heart feels that no person should have to suffer to such a degree as he did and he deserved a retirement for his own well being.

    I wonder how much Benedict XVI thought of this, and of what happened to his predecessor. It might have in some measure also influenced his decision. I think the church should revere these men who become popes not as a lesser divinity, but as individual persons who like everyone have the attribute of human fraility and should be allowed the opportunity to retire like nearly everyone else.

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