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. rafflaw 1, March 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    St. Malachy must have been drinking too much Guinness!
    I do that as often as I may, however, never seen any Pope visions.

    One thing about it.

    We will be able to test his hypothesis to see if it becomes a theory or even stronger, a law.

    It is not too far from what scientists are saying, albeit in a different vein:

    See that 5 degrees Celsius we’re projected to hit by 2050? That’s 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That means the end of human civilization, and possibly of the human race itself. Within our lifetimes.

    (An Old Catastrophe: Climate Policy). The olde Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” comes to mind.

  2. raff, mespo, et al:
    I agree that it is the hypocrisy that burns. Look how many congressmen have been outed (and arrested for solicitation) who consistently expressed homophobic views and opposed legislation giving rights or legal protections to gays.

  3. Mike Spindell 1, March 2, 2013 at 10:52 am

    The RCC was born in the lust for power of Constantine. They turned the teaching of the Gospels into their own personal fiefdom, where politics and power ruled over the words of Jesus. Almost all the Prophets from every religious belief were people who wanted a better life for humans. When they passed, their prophecy’s became the playthings of temporal power for their successors. So it goes.
    You mention prophets.

    A Catholic Bishop, who was also a Catholic Saint, uttered a prophecy about as far back as the last Pope to abdicate:

    The Prophecy of the Popes, attributed to Saint Malachy, is a list of 112 short phrases in Latin. They purport to describe each of the Roman Catholic popes (along with a few anti-popes), beginning with Pope Celestine II (elected in 1143) and concluding with the successor of current pope Benedict XVI, a pope described in the prophecy as “Peter the Roman”, whose pontificate will end in the destruction of the city of Rome.

    The prophecy was first published in 1595 by Arnold de Wyon, a Benedictine historian, as part of his book Lignum Vitæ. Wyon attributed the list to Saint Malachy, the 12th‑century bishop of Armagh in Ireland. According to the traditional account, in 1139, Malachy was summoned to Rome by Pope Innocent II. While in Rome, Malachy purportedly experienced a vision of future popes, which he recorded as a sequence of cryptic phrases. This manuscript was then deposited in the Roman Archive, and thereafter forgotten about until its rediscovery in 1590.

    (Shades of The Mayan Calendar?). One of these daze …

  4. Like much when you consider the opposition to rights for homosexuals it is all about the hypocrisy. The problem isn’t that there are many Homosexuals in the RCC, but that they remain completely homophobic in doctrine. In any organized religion it is the hypocritical false piety that is foul.

  5. Good analysis, mespo. The SMART move would be to name an African pope. That is the only continent where the ranks are growing. However, “smart” left the church decades ago.

  6. OS,
    Nothing would surprise me. I have no problem with homosexual priests, but at least allow them to be in the open and allow women priests and male priests to marry.

  7. Is there anyone who does NOT think there is far more to this than meets the eye? The rumor mill is in full cry, but some rumors have more credibility than others. There is one swirling about the curious relationship he has with Monsignor Georg Gaänswein, who will continue to serve him, and work with the next Pope at the same time.

    Let’s say the rumors are similar to those regarding the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. I will leave it at that.

    Kind of makes you go hmmmm…..

  8. Swarthmore mom wrote…It is my heritage on one side of my family.

    Cradle Catholic. Since religious indoctrination of some sort is the default for raising children in the US, most people inherit their religion from their parents and grandparents. Growing up, we considered our parents idiots but someone how they were brilliant enough to pick the “one, true religion.” Shouldn’t wise people make this decision for themselves?

    I’m not sure how any women (and I am one) can support an ancient patriarchy which views women as inferior to men and lays claim to their bodies and lives, insisting a woman die instead of getting an abortion. The Catholic Church has hidden pedophiles for decades, allowing thousands more children to be subjected to horrendous sexual assault and rape. The Catholic Church is against Marriage Equality. I cannot understand how anyone can reconcile their beliefs with the Catholic Church and if you give them a dime, you are complicit in their atrocities.


  9. The RCC was born in the lust for power of Constantine. They turned the teaching of the Gospels into their own personal fiefdom, where politics and power ruled over the words of Jesus. Almost all the Prophets from every religious belief were people who wanted a better life for humans. When they passed, their prophecy’s became the playthings of temporal power for their successors. So it goes.

  10. Wonderful Mark…. Timing is excellent… Whoever controls the purse strings holds the ultimate power….

  11. I call myself a catholic if I need to identify a religion although I only attend a few times a year and think many of the teachings are fantastical. It is kind of like being a democrat and Irish for me…. It is my heritage on one side of my family. Hoping for a better pope but not overly optimistic. Excellent discussion, Mark.

  12. Great discussion of how inept the Vatican is and how much politics plays into the functioning of the church. I see it as a plus that Pope Benedict is standing down because he was dirty even before he came to Rome. Anyone tied into the continuing sex abuse scandal and the shielding of abusive priests from the laws in any country, should not be Pope and should be in jail.

  13. The Vatican Bank scandal has been going on since the 1970s and may actually be the bigger story and explains why the Italian Cardinals don’t want an outside pope poking around.

  14. Thank you Mark for this timely article. I am not Catholic but am never-the-less interested in the outcome of the conclave that will present a new leader to 1.2 billion Roman Catholics world wide.

    “A single ballot may be held on the first day of the conclave, rising to two rounds on subsequent days. The ballot is repeated morning and afternoon until a pope is chosen by a two-thirds majority, and the used ballot papers are burned in a stove at the corner of the chapel after each round. Black smoke rising from the chapel’s chimney signifies an inconclusive vote (traditionally damp straw was added to make the smoke black but a chemical compound is now used instead); white smoke – and the pealing of the basilica’s bell to avoid any confusion about the colour of the smoke – means that a new pope has been elected.” (

    Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire?

  15. Things are so screwed up in the Vatican.

    Right now, the principality has lost all ATM service due to the Vatican Bank’s failure to comply with international money laundering laws.

    I don’t know what they expect all the tourists to do at the gift shops…

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