Some troubling news about the possible reasons behind Pope Benedict's resignation is breaking in Italy. Look for my report in a special edition of this newsletter this weekend.
I wasn't trying to string readers along; I was still trying to make sense of the story published in the major Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica on Thursday, February 21. Too many things didn't add up—and, frankly, I didn't want them to add up.
By now, you have probably read a version of the story: In April 2012, Pope Benedict XVI had commissioned three cardinals, all over the age of 80 (an important detail, because it means that none would be able to vote in a future papal conclave), to prepare a report on the state of the Holy See. The cardinals presented the report to the Holy Father on December 17, 2012. There is only one copy, and it is in the possession of Pope Benedict.
Those are the facts that have been verified by the Press Office of the Holy See. But the La Repubblica story goes much further, making claims about the way in which the investigation was conducted, the contents of the report, and—most explosively—the role that the report may have had in convincing Pope Benedict to resign the papacy.
I first became aware of the report on Thursday morning, when I received the daily bulletin from the Vatican Information Service. Under the headline "Pope's Final Activities, Possibility of a Motu Proprio, Relationship With the Society of St. Pius X," the final paragraph read:
In conclusion, [Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office] confirmed that the Commission of Cardinals (Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko, and Salvatore De Giorgi) set up by the Holy Father to prepare a report on the Holy See has made its results known exclusively to the Pope. The cardinals will not grant interviews or otherwise comment on the results.
The paragraph seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the story, and I immediately suspected that Father Lombardi was responding to a story in the Italian press. Later that day, my suspicion was confirmed with I received the February 21, 2013, installment of "The Moynihan Letters," an occasional newsletter sent out by Robert Moynihan, the founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican.
The title of this newsletter was "Blackmail," and the introduction was nothing short of horrifying:
Today a veil of secrecy was shredded in this eternal city.
Today therefore marked the beginning of a difficult, important struggle for the purification of the government of the Church desired for so many years by Joseph Ratzinger.
We were given a glimpse today into some of the reasons, previously unknown, that prompted Pope Benedict XVI to announce his resignation on February 11, to take effect February 28, in seven days, reasons that apparently “overwhelmed his spirit within him” and “made his heart desolate.”
It is a story that in many ways seems the plot of a novel.
It is a story of blackmail and betrayal at the highest levels of the Church, and, allegedly, of a homosexual lobby organized within the Vatican to influence and obtain important decisions.
Rob Moynihan is a sensible fellow who has spent much of his life as a reporter and editor for Catholic publications in Rome. For him to write such lines, with very few qualifications (just one "apparently" and one "allegedly") indicated that the story was serious and, just as importantly, one that he apparently believed.
What was that story? According to La Repubblica, in the wake of the "Vatileaks" affair, the commission of the three cardinals was given unprecedented authority to conduct an investigation of the papal court, the Curia. They were even allowed to interview fellow cardinals.
In the course of the investigation, La Repubblica claims, the cardinals discovered certain patterns that indicated the existence of a homosexual lobby within the Curia, whose members "are being subjected to ‘external influence’—we would say blackmail—from laypeople to whom they are linked by ties of a ‘worldly nature.’" These allegations of homosexual activity, as well as claims of financial impropriety, La Repubblica claims, are documented in the report, which ran to 300 pages. Pope Benedict, the newspaper says, had been considering resigning the papacy; upon receiving the report, he made up his mind to do just that.
Horrifying revelations, if true; and Rob Moynihan seemed to believe them to be. Still, something bothered me. Why wasn't this story being picked up by the left-wing newspapers in the United States? Moynihan's newsletter had come out Thursday night (I received it at 5:46 P.M. CST), which meant that the La Repubblica story had been out for 20 hours or more. Yet the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times—all were silent. Surely none of them had decided to give the Catholic Church a break for a change.
On the other hand, how would they cover the story? Obviously, for Catholics who are faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church, allegations of a significant homosexual lobby within the Curia are devastating. But for the New York Times, significant homosexual influence within the Church would most likely be a cause for celebration.
And that got me thinking: Among Italian dailies, La Repubblica is closer in substance to the New York Times and the Washington Post. (Moynihan describes it as "center-left" and "secular humanist.") How, exactly, was it that someone who had seen the commission's report to Pope Benedict chose to leak its contents to the New York Times of Italy? Presumably, the purpose of the leak would be to influence in some way the coming papal conclave; but anyone who was on the side of the alleged homosexual lobby would want to keep this information out of the public eye. Those who would stand to gain by its release would be more "conservative" elements in the Church. But surely, then, going to La Repubblica wouldn't make much sense. Why not, for instance, leak the information to a respected conservative Vaticanist such as Sandro Magister?
And so, on Friday morning, as I was putting the finishing touches on my newsletter, I didn't know what to do. The story was out there, and it was now making its way into English-language publications (primarily in the United Kingdom); but something smelled fishy. I decided to wait a little longer before covering it; thus my note in the newsletter.
I'm glad I did. Late Friday night CST (early Saturday morning, Rome time), Rob Moynihan sent out another newsletter, this time entitled "Stop." He had come at it from a different direction than I had—he has more contacts in Rome, after all—but in the first part of the new newsletter, it seemed that he had come to similar conclusions. There was little reason, he decided, to believe that anything in the article was better than "second-hand information," and he pointed to one assertion—the claim of one final public audience for Pope Benedict on February 28—that simply cannot be true.
And yet, at the end of the newsletter, Moynihan offers four reasons why, despite all of this, he had given any credibility to the La Repubblica article. I won't go over them here; you can read them for yourself in the newsletter, which is online.
I'd like to offer another reason, though, why he might have been willing to believe the worst, because (I suspect) it's the reason why I was willing to believe the worst: We don't want to see Pope Benedict go.
It's as simple as that. We're fearful for the future. After the death of Pope John Paul II, we didn't know what to expect. The Church has been under siege by the modern world not just for decades now, but for centuries. And, at times, too many high-ranking prelates have seemed willing to follow the winds of change, rather than to hold tight to the Cross.
On April 19, 2005, when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected the 265th pope, I felt relieved, as if the Church had dodged a bullet. It wouldn't surprise me if Rob Moynihan felt the same way, too. And now, in the wake of Pope Benedict's decision to resign, it feels as if we didn't necessarily dodge the bullet; it's just taken its sweet time in coming.
But that is the wrong way to look at the upcoming papal conclave, and at the history of the Church in general. Either the Catholic Church is what we profess it to be—a divine institution, founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, even as it is made up of all-too-fallible human beings—or it isn't. There's no in-between.
If the Church is what Rob Moynihan and I—and every faithful Catholic out there—profess it to be, then we don't need to worry about dodging a bullet. Indeed, such worries are a sign that our faith is not as strong as it should be. The Holy Spirit is in charge, and Christ Himself promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church that He founded on the rock of Peter's faith.
I strongly suspect now that the La Repubblica article is, as the Vatican Secretariat of State declared on Saturday, one in a series of "unverified, unverifiable, or even completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions" designed "to influence the election of the Pope . . . through public opinion, which is often based on judgements that do not capture the typically spiritual aspect of this moment that the Church is living."
Even if, however, there is some truth in the La Repubblica article, we do not need to worry, because the fate of the Church rests not in the reports of an Italian newspaper or in the weight of public opinion but in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So, for anyone whom I may have upset with my words at the beginning of Friday's newsletter, let me offer my sincere apology. Mea culpa; mea culpa; mea maxima culpa.
And let me end with the final paragraph of the Saturday communique from the Vatican Secretariat of State, which sums up the situation better than I ever could:
Never before as at this moment are Catholics focusing on what is essential: praying for Pope Benedict, praying that the Holy Spirit might enlighten the College of Cardinals, and praying for the future Pope, confident that the future of the barque of Peter is in God's hands.