Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Fall of the Vice-Pope

Agencia Rio Negro
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (left), the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and future Pope Francis, with Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone at a beatification ceremony in Chimpay, Argentina, November 11, 2007

A photograph taken in Argentina in 2007 shows two cardinals, Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Tarcisio Bertone, sitting side by side, although their chairs are on two different levels. At the time, Bertone was the Vatican’s Secretary of State, having traveled to a village in northern Patagonia “in the name of His Holiness Benedict XVI” to preside over the beatification of a turn-of-the-century religious student.

Bertone’s wooden armchair sits on a dais that puts him a good six inches higher than Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who perches uncomfortably on his metal-and-plastic seat, and the man known to many as the “vice-pope” occupies his virtual throne with kingly complacency, clad in yards of fine Italian filetto lace beneath his golden chasuble, with a sporty pair of aviator sunglasses to complement his gold-embroidered miter (and is that a Rolex on his wrist?). Next to him, in Jesuit black under plain white robes, Cardinal Bergoglio, with his iron cross and his horn-rimmed spectacles, looks open-mouthed upon the radiant spectacle, his famously mobile face providing the perfect caption to the picture. Six years later, Bergoglio became Pope Francis, and things have not been the same since.

On May 19, the glossy, gossipy German newspaper Bild Zeitung printed a report that made immediate headlines in Italy: Vatican prosecutors had begun to investigate allegations that Cardinal Bertone, as the Holy See’s Number Two from 2006 to 2013, had embezzled 15 million euros ($20 million) from Vatican accounts, apparently to benefit an Italian television producer, a former director of the state broadcaster RAI named Ettore Bernabei, with deep connections to Italy’s conservative establishment and a longtime membership in the powerful Catholic organization Opus Dei. The transfer of these funds allegedly occurred in December 2012. The Vatican press corps swiftly denied that a “criminal investigation” was underway, and Bertone himself insisted that the deal had followed “all the rules.”

But the timing of the presumptive transaction is, to say the least, interesting. It came at the very end of the remarkable year in which confidential documents from Pope Benedict’s private office began leaking to the press, revealing power struggles within the Curia and suggestions of widespread corruption within the Church. In these “Vatileaks” documents, Cardinal Bertone figured prominently: he had personally reproved the general secretary of the Vatican governorate, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, for reporting detailed evidence of nepotism, cronyism, and crooked property deals within the Vatican, and soon Pope Benedict had transferred the whistle-blowing prelate from the Vatican to Washington.

In May 2012, tensions escalated still further: the papers from the Viganò affair and other confidential documents were published and analyzed in a book by journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, Sua Santità (His Holiness); Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, head of the Vatican bank, was deposed from office after a vote of no confidence by the institution’s governing board (whose five members were themselves fired this month); and the Pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested as the probable source of the Vatileaks papers and confined to a room on the Vatican grounds. In October 2012, a Vatican court convicted Gabriele of grand theft and sentenced him to jail. By December, however, when the transfer of monies is said to have occurred, Bertone could have felt more confident about his position within the Church; even the pardon Pope Benedict extended to his former butler was only a partial pardon, for Paolo Gabriele remains exiled forever from Vatican territory.

Complaints about Cardinal Bertone’s performance as secretary of state began almost the moment he was appointed to that office in 2006, displacing veteran secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Bertone, a member of the teaching order known as the Salesians, had no experience in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, a fact that angered veterans like Sodano and his staff, a staff that Bertone swiftly began to replace with his own people. A big, bullet-headed man with a degree in canon law, Bertone became archbishop of Vercelli in 1991, but his career began to rise more dramatically after his appointment in 1995 as secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the descendant of the old Holy Office of the Inquisition.

In this position, Bertone worked with the Congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Ratziger, to negotiate the return of several rebellious priests to the Catholic fold, including the four ultra-traditionalist followers of excommunicated archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the colorful Zambian archbishop Emanuel Milingo, an exorcist and healer who married a Korean acupuncturist in a mass wedding presided over by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 2001. When the couple arrived in Italy, Catholic authorities swept the wayward seventy-one-year-old archbishop off to seclusion in a monastery outside Rome as his bride staged a hunger strike in St. Peter’s Square.

Bertone continued his rise in the Vatican hierarchy, becoming archbishop of Genoa, and in 2003, a cardinal, almost certainly on Cardinal Ratzinger’s recommendation. In 2005, Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, and a year later chose Bertone as his new secretary of state, charged with supervising the political and diplomatic functions of the Holy See. Because Vatican City is a tiny enclave within the city of Rome, its political dealings with Italy have always been of paramount importance, and Bertone took the political aspect of his new position seriously. In 2007, in a letter to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the newly appointed head of the the Italian Episcopal Conference, the official assembly of all 220 Italian bishops, he declared that his own Secretariat, not the Conference, would now be taking exclusive responsibility for dealing with the Italian state; Bagnasco and the bishops should concentrate on taking care of their parishioners.

The left-wing government of Romano Prodi had scant sympathy for the conservative Catholicism of Pope Benedict, and Bertone was eager to press the Pope’s agendas in his own way. By 2008, the Prodi government had fallen to a right-wing coalition headed, once again, by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Professing shared traditional values, the Church and the Berlusconi government collaborated closely in media coverage of issues like euthanasia, abortion, and relations with other religions, as well as in more concrete projects—like transactions involving the Vatican bank.

In 2007, Benedict appointed Bertone papal chamberlain, chief administrator of the property and revenues of the Holy See, and a crucial figure in the sede vacante period between popes. Bertone’s eagerness to push his own interests and his evident delight in authority did little to smooth out tensions within the Vatican; Bertone’s list of enemies by now included Cardinal Camillo Ruini, former prefect of Rome, Cardinal Sodano, and Cardinal Bagnasco. Nor did his performance in office improve the Church’s image for the international public. One of the bishops he had helped to readmit to Catholicism turned out to be a rabid anti-Semite; stories of pedophile priests and brutal orphanages continued to leak into the news; and Prime Minister Berlusconi, elated by his reelection, became increasingly erratic in his behavior, amid charges of financial corruption, conflict of interest, and wild orgies that the Prime Minister himself termed “elegant dinners.”

Pope Benedict’s response to complaints about Bertone had always been a resigned “We are an old pope.” By December 2012, with Berlusconi replaced by the sober government of Mario Monti, the agitations of Vatileaks seemed to have settled down to the usual state of uneasy tension between the Italian cardinals who professed friendship without providing much evidence of it: Bertone and Sodano may have detested each other, but they both were allied in their hostility to Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, whose stature as a theologian appealed to Pope Benedict. As for Scola’s predecessor in Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, a jolly, popular figure with more liberal leanings than Benedict’s, both his views and his popularity made him difficult to control. In all these maneuverings, Bertone was the figure who most evidently had the pope’s ear.

Then the unthinkable happened. At the end of February 2013, Pope Benedict announced that he would be retiring before Easter, effectively forcing a quick conclave, and just as effectively putting a lid on Bertone’s career.

Osservatore Romano/Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI reading L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, at the Papal summer residence at Castelgandolfo, Italy, July 2010. Following his retirement, Pope Benedict withdrew to Castelgandolfo, before taking up retirement quarters at the Vatican.

The second hammer blow came in a brief sentence at the end of the conclave: “Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.” The new Pope had taken the unprecedented name of Francis, after the eccentric little saint from Assisi who dedicated his life to a quest for compassion, simplicity, and poverty.

Within a few months, Pope Francis had named his own secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, whose residence in the Vatican guesthouse, the Casa Santa Marta, is as modest as the present pontiff’s, and Bertone retired from the Vatican’s foreign service; in fact he retired slightly ahead of schedule, miffed by the new Pope’s failure to defend him against the charges of corruption that had begun to emerge with Vatileaks. In December, when Bertone turns eighty, he will be compelled by law to leave the several Vatican congregations to which he still belongs as an active member.

When Benedict took the extraordinary step of retiring, he quietly withdrew to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence outside of Rome, until modest quarters could be arranged for him in a convent at the Vatican, and he has carefully stayed out of public view. But for elderly cardinals, retirement need not mean giving up power, as has been clear in the cases of Camillo Ruini, former prefect of Rome, and Angelo Sodano, the former secretary of state; an address within the Vatican can keep such people in the thick of things long after their official mandates have run out. (Francis has made explicit that he wants future retirees to return to their hometowns rather than continue to populate the Vatican.)

True to form, Cardinal Bertone chose retirement quarters in the building next door to the Casa Santa Marta, merging two apartments and a terrace to yield a square footage ten times that of the two-room apartment where Pope Francis resides. Questioned about this sumptuous abode, Bertone has insisted that his relationship with the new pontiff is cordial and that his apartment does not measure 7,000 square feet (but it does if the terrace counts as part of the total). As for the latest allegations, according to Rome’s Il Messaggero (May 21), the cardinal insists: “There is a great deal of creativity on the part of the press. I’m on the same wavelength as the Pope; I feel calm.”

On May 27, the Italian weekly Chi published an aerial view of the penthouse, which overlooks St. Peter’s on one side and Bertone’s old haunt, the Holy Office, on the other, calling it “the penthouse of the scandal.” Because Chi belongs to Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondadori publishing house, the article confirms that their onetime alliance is off. The ramifications of that alliance will surely be emerging in the next few years.

Massimo Franco, a journalist for Corriere della Sera, has suggested that Benedict resigned in full awareness that Jorge Mario Bergoglio might succeed him, since the Argentine cardinal was runner-up at the last conclave. The fact that the future pope failed to appear on most of the lists of papabili circulating before the conclave of 2013 shows how many journalists were covering the Vatican from personal positions sympathetic to Bertone and his cohorts (and Bertone, who as chamberlain oversaw the logistics of the conclave, certainly entertained high hopes of becoming pontiff himself).

Both these prelates and these reporters failed to recognize how negatively the economic crisis, the profound corruption of the Italian state, and the power struggles within the Vatican struck the great outside world as well as many people within the Catholic Church itself. Indeed, Benedict does not seem discomfited at all by the changes Francis has put into effect. The old pope may have been an old fox.

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