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The Pope is rich! And other Vatican myths.

ROME -- Over the centuries, the Vatican has been a magnet for legends, myths, and conspiracy theories such as that of the infamous (and completely fictitious) Pope Joan.

In part this is because the odd dress, ritual, and language of the Holy See invite speculation, just like the Skull and Bones Society at Yale. It's also because the Roman Catholic Church tends to excite strong passions, among both supporters and detractors, and all sorts of wild allegations that would not be taken seriously if attached to other institutions.

It will be difficult, and in some cases impossible, for readers to let go of these myths, either because they feed their prejudices or because they're simply too much fun.

One can't always blame outside forces for the promotion of certain myths, though. Sometimes the Vatican leads with its chin, as it often has on its alleged "fantastic wealth." Consider the Vatican Bank scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, which combined shady business tactics with spectacular ineptitude on the part of key Vatican officials and their banker friends.

The affair fired the imaginations of journalists and film-makers such as Francis Ford Coppola in his Godfather III. It solidified popular suspicions that Vatican officials spend as much time with spreadsheets as with prayer books and that the Vatican must be swimming in untold billions.

Of course, you don't need conspiracy theories to be dazzled by alleged Vatican wealth. The Vatican museums groan with some of the greatest artistic treasures known to humanity, I and at least some of the Vatican officials live and work in exquisite Baroque structures whose cash value defies reckoning.

Over the years, these riches have scandalized and disillusioned many Christians who fail to see the connection between playing international currency markets and following Jesus.

Reality is more prosaic. To put it bluntly, the Vatican is not rich. It has an annual operating budget of $260 million, which would not place it on any top 500 list of social institutions. To draw a comparison to the nonprofit sector, Harvard University has an annual operating budget of a little over $1.3 billion, which means it could run the equivalent of five Vaticans. This is to say nothing of the corporate world. Microsoft in 2002 spent $4.7 billion on research and development alone and has annual sales of $293 billion. On the scale of the world's mammoth enterprises, the Vatican doesn't rate.

But is the Vatican sitting on a pile of wealth--such as real estate or artwork--that doesn't show up in its annual budget? Michelangelo's Pieta statue, the Sistine Chapel, or Raphael's famous frescoes are all listed on the Vatican books at a value of 1 euro each. From the Vatican's point of view, they are part of the artistic heritage of the world and may never be sold or borrowed against.

One could argue that the personnel of the Holy See profit because they live and work in the midst of all this gorgeous art, but that doesn't pay the rent or build up retirement savings. Moreover, only the lucky personnel at the Secretariat of State have offices with ceilings etched by Raphael. If you work in the Congregation for Worship, for example, you're stuck in an anonymous bureaucratic space that might as well be in the Pentagon or General Motors.

If the Vatican is sitting on a secret stash of cash, there is little evidence of it in the way of institutional functions. While there are a few Mercedes limousines to ferry VIPs to and fro, and some cardinals do have fairly nice apartments, most offices are sparsely furnished and rather low-tech, living quarters are plain, and salaries for most officials are surprisingly low by First World standards.


Another bit of news that will be surprising to many readers is that there is no such thing as "the Vatican." At least, there is no "the Vatican" in the sense that most English-speaking journalists, commentators, and activists use the phrase. In the pages of The New York Times or in press releases from activist groups such as Catholics United for the Faith or Call to Action one finds phrases such as "The Vatican wants" or "The Vatican announced today."

The implicit assumption in such language is that there is a living creature somewhere called "the Vatican" with a single mind and a single will. The Vatican is not an organism, it is a bureaucracy. It is staffed by human beings, each of whom has his or her own intentions, visions, hopes, and dreams. Anyone who knows a bureaucracy from the inside can spot where the fault lines lie, who's in which camp, and where the major disagreements are.

Spend some time around the Holy See, and it will become clear that in some ways, though certainly not all, it reflects the diversity of the wider Catholic world.

There are progressives and traditionalists, sticklers for liturgical fine points and social justice activists who couldn't care less when one kneels and when one stands, ecumenical dreamers but also hardheaded realists who think dialogue with Protestants is a waste of time. Only from a distance can the Vatican seem like an indistinct gray mass in which everyone looks alike, acts alike, and thinks alike. Seen from up close, it is far more polychromatic.

Let's take a classic case of Vatican officials not singing from the same hymnbook. There are two critical jobs in the Holy See when it comes to liturgy. The first is the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This group approves liturgical texts such as the Roman Missal, translations of prayers into various languages, and adaptations of liturgical practices on the local level.

The second office is that of the master of ceremonies in the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff. His job is to organize all the liturgies celebrated by the pope. It goes without saying that whatever people see the pope doing will be widely imitated.

Since 1987 the master of ceremonies has been the Italian Archbishop Piero Marini, who clearly believes in a progressive liturgical vision of worship that is dynamic, participatory, and shaped by local culture.

From 1998 to 2002 the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship was Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, who believed the liturgical reforms of Vatican II had gone too far and used his five years in office to break the structures that had engineered the liturgical reform.

One symptomatic flashpoint of the disagreements of these two men was liturgical dance. The Congregation for Divine Worship, even before Medina, had frowned on the idea of dance in the liturgy. In 1975 it issued a document that said, "[Dance] cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever. That would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements."

Medina aggressively enforced this rule and in 1998 wrote to the bishop of Honolulu to ban the use of hula dancing in any liturgical context, a custom that had become common among Catholics in Hawaii.

Yet when Pope John Paul II visited Brussels in 1995 for the beatification of Father Damien DeVeuster, the famous saint of the Hawaiian lepers, a hula dance was performed smack in the middle of the ceremony. For those familiar with Marini's style, it was hardly a surprise. Anyone who has ever attended a major papal liturgy, such as a World Youth Day Mass, has seen enough liturgical dance to remind them of a Broadway production.

There is not, and never has been, a "Vatican" in the mythic sense. The Vatican is Medina, but it's also Marini. Catholics of left, right, or center persuasions often assume that "the Vatican" is their enemy. The truth is, there are probably people within the Holy See who share their ideas, and identifying and supporting them could create powerful allies for those who can think beyond the mythology.


When I lecture on the Vatican, the single most frequent question I hear is, "Who's really in charge?" On one level the question reflects the perfectly accurate observation that as Pope John Paul II becomes more frail his capacity to keep track of issues and personnel diminishes. This means that a greater share of decision falls to aides, and it's certainly legitimate to ask who they are.

Yet also lurking behind this question is an assumption that somebody has to be "in charge" of everything. People accustomed to thinking of the Vatican as the "world's last absolute monarchy" assume that means the pope makes all the decisions for global Catholicism, and if it isn't the pope pulling the strings, somebody else, or a small cabal, must be doing it for him.

Some people propose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for this Rasputin role, others Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's private secretary. Others would nominate a small group of senior cardinals. Again, there is reality to such perceptions. Ratzinger is one of the most powerful men in the Vatican, and Dziwisz, like all papal secretaries, enjoys tremendous influence as the man who can speak authoritatively as to the mind of the pope. It is also true that in the Vatican some cardinals are more equal than others.

Yet the basic reality is this: No one person or group of persons, including the pope himself, makes all the key decisions for the Roman Catholic Church. Despite its image as an ultra-hierarchical, rigidly controlled organization, the church is actually remarkably decentralized. No one in the Vatican decides how much St. Anne's Parish in Arlington, Virginia can spend on pencils.

Consider, for example, the brouhaha that broke out in 2001 over the $10 million renovation of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee. Under the guidance of then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland, plans were made to reshape the historic downtown cathedral, which had been built in 1853. Controversial steps included moving the altar out of the sanctuary, placing the tabernacle in a Blessed Sacrament chapel and an organ in the former sanctuary. This plan did not sit well with some conservative Milwaukee-area Catholics, who enlisted the activist group Catholics United for the Faith to file a canonical appeal with the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship (run by Cardinal Jorge Medina) to suspend the renovations. Medina wrote to Weakland and asked that work be suspended until certain questions were resolved.

Weakland flew to Rome to answer questions, and when he returned, he resumed work on the cathedral as originally planned. Then he sent a letter to all his priests with the following three points: Liturgical documents give the local bishop authority to make "the ultimate decision on the disposition of spaces." He and Medina differ on the priority to be given in adapting older churches to current liturgical practices. And the Vatican congregation did not follow correct legal procedures in dealing with the complaint.

In the end, the work was completed according to Weakland's specifications. Just to show he had not lost his sense of humor over the episode, he commissioned a marble plaque for the back of the cathedral to commemorate the renovation. Its tongue-in-cheek Latin inscription reads that the cathedral was redesigned "in accordance with the principles of the Second Vatican Council ... notwithstanding certain difficulties."

The point of this story is that there are clear limits to how much the Vatican can throw its weight around and that when lower levels of authority are determined to assert their prerogatives, they can often do so with surprising resilience.


No myth about the Vatican is more enduring or widespread than the belief that it is an ultrasecret closed world, impermeable to the outsider. A cluster of adjectives expresses the idea: Byzantine, mysterious, occult.

Here's how one major American daily newspaper packaged the image in the lead of a feature splashed across page A1: "The sense of impenetrability begins at the Vatican gate just beyond St. Peter's Square. Swiss Guards ... lift their pikes to allow passage only after receiving orders. Farther inside, a gatekeeper checks his list before giving a reluctant nod for a visitor to enter a 12-foot door reinforced with steel and iron spikes to repel invaders.... Inside the fortress-like building, an air of secrecy and monarchical power wafts through elegant, marble halls like a thick plume of incense."

It's a classic version of what most people believe the Vatican is like. It is also enormously misleading. For one thing, there are far more security checks to enter the White House than to enter the Vatican.

Let's unpack the mythology. Does the Vatican have secrets? Yes, as does every government, corporation, NGO, and other institution. Moreover, for those things it really wants to keep under wraps--such as the files of theologians under investigation or correspondence from American bishops about sexually abusive priests--the Vatican is far more insulated from pressure for disclosure than secular democracies.

The relevant question, however, is this: Granted all the above, is the Vatican more successful than anyone else at keeping things quiet? Not from anything I can tell. The Vatican may try to be secretive, but for the most part it doesn't succeed. If you are determined and capable, there's very little about the Vatican you can't discover.

Comparing it to other centers of global power, the Vatican is actually a great deal less secretive because it has no off-the-books budgets for spy agencies, no classified weapons programs, no "eyes only" intelligence from satellite intercepts and wiretaps. It has, in short, no secrets of state. Moreover, despite the ominoussounding names of some of the Vatican's official storehouses of information, such as the Secret Archives, most documentary records are open to any researcher who is willing to buy a tessera, the equivalent of a library card.

The Vatican policy of unsealing records by pontificate, usually 70 years after the death of the pope, compares favorably with similar policies for releasing official government records in the U.S. and Great Britain. Indeed, some historians say the Holy See has been more forthcoming with critical records from World War II, for example, than either British or American intelligence agencies.

Let's be very clear: Would it be healthier for the Catholic Church if the Vatican were more transparent? Unquestionably. The Vatican's unique psychology and culture are difficult for people, including most Catholics, to grasp, which generates miscommunication and animosity. Some of this could be avoided if the Holy See were to make a greater effort to bridge the cultural gap. The Vatican is still a long way from what the pope said he wanted it to be in January 1984, speaking to 1,000 journalists: "A 'house of glass' where all can see what is happening and how it carries out its mission in faithfulness to Christ and the evangelical message."

At the same time, it is a serious error to believe that by virtue of its alleged secrecy the Vatican is impossible to penetrate or understand. For anyone willing to take the institution seriously on its own terms and to spend the time to learn its rhythms, it is quite comprehensible.


An entire opus of popular entertainments, from Otto Preminger's The Cardinal to the Colleen McCullough classic The Thorn Birds, has taught outsiders to regard the conflict between career and personal integrity as the essential drama of the clerical life. Ambition in the clerical world tends to create a special sense of scandal since priests are supposed to be, in a famous phrase of the former Jesuit General Father Pedro Arrupe, "men for others."

Given the context, it's understandable why some Catholics approach Vatican personnel with suspicion. These are, after all, clerics who by most standards have "moved up" and may be destined for even higher office. The Villa Stritch, where American diocesan priests working in curial service live, is something of an incubator for bishops. Moreover, whenever there is a bishop's opening in their diocese, men who serve in the Roman curia will generally be considered candidates.

In the popular mind, there's often an assumption that a priest in the Roman curia is probably a careerist, unless it's proven otherwise. Frequently bundled with this assumption is the suspicion that the priest is capable of doing some shady thing--undercutting rivals or taking positions based on convenience and popularity rather than conscience--if necessary to secure his own advancement.

To call this perception a myth is not to deny that it possesses elements of truth. Are there clerics who want to move up the ladder and organize their lives and work accordingly? Yes. Most people who work in the Vatican, in fact, can point them out. Are there episodes, sometimes infamous, in which personnel inside the Vatican have engaged in outrageous conduct in order to smear the reputation of a rival or otherwise enhance their own prospects for promotion? Again, yes. However, careerism is a case in which reality has become mythologized in terms of quantity rather than quality.

First, it would contravene the laws of human nature were there not some careerism in the Vatican. This is a hierarchical system, and promotion is the primary way the system expresses approval of someone's work. To complain that curial personnel like to be rewarded for a job well done is a bit like complaining that they're human beings.

Second, simply as a matter of accurate observation, it is not true that ambition is the dominant psychological trait of the men and women in the Holy See. Most officials never even applied for their job, and after several years have only vague suspicions of how they got there. In some cases, a potential Vatican official is not even aware he or she is under consideration until the decision has already been made. There are no applications to fill out, no curriculum vitae to send in. It is literally a case of "don't call us, we'll call you."

Sometimes when a candidate is approached the first response (and sometimes the second and third) is "no." The person may have a promising academic career, may prefer not to live in Rome, or may want a pastoral assignment rather than a desk job.

One untold story of Vatican hiring, in fact, is how difficult it is to fill certain slots because people with proper training and professional experience don't want the job. It's not that those who refuse are less career-oriented than those who said yes. In fact, in some cases, they rejected the position precisely because they knew they would find more prestige, more affirmation, greater personal satisfaction, and even more money with other pursuits.

Finally, there is a special variant of the careerism myth, which is that every cardinal dreams of being pope. Certainly this kind of ambition does exist. But frankly the number of cardinals who entertain such dreams is probably much lower than, say, the number of U.S. senators who fantasize about being president. First, the theological and psychological distance between being a cardinal and being pope is enormous. Most cardinals genuinely have a difficult time believing themselves worthy of such responsibility.

Second, there is no such thing as an ex-pope. One carries the burden of office until death. There is no lecture circuit to hit, no memoirs to write, no papal library to open. Contrast that with the relatively plush life of a retired cardinal, and it's clear why most member of the College of Cardinals pray that "this cup may pass."

JOHN L. ALLEN JR. is the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. This text is excerpted with permission from his book All the Pope's Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. [c] 2004 by John L. Allen Jr.
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Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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