The Blog

Click on titles below to read the entire post, access the archive, and make comments.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Cardinals do not have geographical constituencies. And a conclave is not a political convention.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s acknowledge the deep geographical imbalances in the conclave that will elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. There are 117 cardinals eligible to vote, and it is a group dominated by Europeans and North Americans.

Consider these numbers:

— A full 52 percent of the voting-age cardinals are European, despite the fact that Europe today is home to just 24 percent of the church’s total population, and is the only continent where the actual number of Catholics is in decline.

— Italy alone has 28 voting cardinals in the conclave, or 24 percent — more than Africa, Asia and Australia combined, and eight more voters than the last conclave in 2005.

— About 35 percent of the voters are active or retired members of the Roman Curia, a remarkably high proportion that has significantly increased since the 2005 conclave.

— Latin America, home to 42 percent of the world’s Catholic population, has 19 cardinals among conclave voters, or 16 percent of the total.

In terms of population, the church’s center of gravity long ago moved from Europe to the south and east, and the church’s biggest growth areas are Africa and Asia.

Many would argue that this changing dynamic goes beyond simple numbers — that Catholic communities in developing countries are not only more populous, but also more vibrant, more participatory in the sacraments and more influential in their societies.

Catholic leaders, including popes, have professed to welcome this transformation from a Eurocentric to a more universal church. But it’s a shift that has barely touched the highest levels of church governance.

No wonder the College of Cardinals is increasingly seen as the firewall against change in the church. For all the talk about Catholicism’s global expansion, far-flung church communities have relatively little voice when it comes to choosing and advising a pope.

“The church is not a democracy” is an oft-recited mantra at the Vatican, and no one is seriously suggesting that the College of Cardinals should operate as a kind of representational parliament, or that popes should adhere to geographical quotas when he selects new members.

But early last year, after yet another batch of new cardinals tilted almost exclusively toward Europe and the Roman Curia, whispered criticism was heard inside and outside the Vatican. Some of it appears to have reached Pope Benedict’s ears: when he named six additional cardinals in November, none were European and five were from the developing world.

That hadn’t happened in decades, and the pope told a surprised audience that his selections were meant to demonstrate the church’s universality.

Last Christmas, Pope Benedict pardoned Paolo Gabriele, his former valet who was tried and convicted for leaking confidential documents to the press. The pope’s move seemed like the classic Vatican happy ending to the Vatileaks affair, an act of forgiveness that transcended the revelations of petty conflict in the Roman Curia.

There’s a postscript, however, and it raises some familiar questions about transparency and secrecy at the Vatican.

The Italian magazine Panorama reported earlier this month that when the Vatican assigned Gabriele to a position at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Hospital, it was on the condition that he refrain from talking to the press. The magazine said Gabriele signed a commitment “not to give interviews or make statements” in exchange for his new job.

The impression left by the Panorama article was that the Vatican’s reconciliation effort was, in effect, a stratagem to buy the silence of a man who might have much more to say.

I spoke with Vatican officials who, not surprisingly, offered a much different take. First, they said Gabriele had not signed such a promise — at least not yet — and had not taken up any new employment position.

Second, they argued that it wouldn’t be so strange if such a promise of silence were eventually asked of Gabriele, or offered by him, in view of the fact that he himself has expressed remorse over leaking the documents and damaging the image of the pope. Gabriele’s “repentance” was a key reason for the pope’s pardon and for the Vatican offer of a new job, and if he was being honest, it would be hard to imagine him now sidelining as a guest on talk shows or writing a tell-all book.

Vatican officials are well aware that Gabriele will receive attractive financial offers to tell his story, if he hasn’t already.

One reason the Vatican would view a “vow of silence” as normal is that all Roman Curia employees are expected to protect the secrecy of their work affairs. The General Regulations of the Roman Curia, in fact, stipulate that employees take an oath promising to maintain secrecy — not just on important “pontifical” matters but on everything handled by their department.

In the Vatican’s view, this is not a “gag order” but simply recognition that employment at the Holy See is not like any other job. As Pope John Paul II wrote when he promulgated his version of the regulations, the Roman Curia has no equivalent in civil society, and requires a sense of communion with the mission of the supreme pontiff.

In theory, Vatican employees are not only supposed to avoid taking documents and notes out of the office, but are forbidden from meeting “outsiders” in the office or even talking to non-authorized personnel about their work without expressed permission from superiors. Fortunately for journalists, most Vatican officials routinely bend those rules.

Inaugurating a blog is a little like launching an empty cruise ship, in the hope that passengers will be stepping on board with every post.

This blog will offer commentary, news and insights on Vatican and Catholic Church affairs. It’s a different format for me, and an exciting one. For nearly 30 years, I covered the Vatican for Catholic News Service in Rome, writing thousands of news stories and many analytical pieces, trying never to stray outside the margins of journalistic objectivity.

Bloggers have more freedom — freedom to make judgments, raise questions, express opinions, link to other points of view and engage in discussion. In short, to make some waves. I welcome the opportunity to do all of that, and in the process add a reasonable and discerning voice to the religious blogosphere.

This blog’s launch coincides with publication of my book, The Vatican Diaries, a behind-the-scenes account of life inside the Vatican walls. One of the advance reviews said my book would “appeal to readers seeking understanding of or connection with the Catholic Church’s heart” and “is recommended for anyone who would like to challenge their own notions and perceptions of the Vatican.”

I hope to keep that same provocative spirit alive in my blog. To any and all readers, welcome aboard.

© 2020 by John Thavis - All Rights Reserved