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A journey into the heart of curial darkness


By Robert J. Hutchinson
Doubleday, 289 pages, $11.95 paper


When one reads, early on page 2 of When in Rome, that “Everywhere you go in the Vatican, you see nudity,” one suspects there’s less here than meets the eye. But don’t close the book yet. This cranky personal account of one journalist’s attempt to break down Vatican doors offers tantalizing evidence that, like the emperor’s problem clothes, many Holy See suits may be threadbare.

The author is a shameless fellow who reminds us his previous book was The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Gambling. But he’s a practicing Roman Catholic -- he actually goes to Mass on Sundays and reads all the papal encyclicals, he says, not to follow their teachings but because, candid to a fault, “I don’t feel like living that virtuous a life.”

Girt with a Jesuit education -- “A steady diet of Karl Rahner and Gabriel Marcel, charismatic renewal and liberation theology, the St. Louis Jesuits and the United Farm Workers” -- Hutchinson fell to pondering the mystery of Christianity: how some Jewish peasants, “following a grubby carpenter,” could transform human history and civilization. He decided Rome was a big part of the answer. Rome was the center of the world, and the first Christians went for it -- into the eye of the storm, or, more precisely, the lion’s den. “Willing to be tasty hors d’oeuvres for the emperor’s household pets,” they took on the empire. They couldn’t lose, having nothing to lose.

Once they conquered Rome, Roman popes became the center of gravity for dispersed and disparate Christians everywhere. Hutchinson thus ascribes the survival of the Catholic church to the papal “ministry of unity.”

The author, his wife and three kids moved -- think of it -- from Las Vegas to Rome, where, “an innocent lay lamb among the curial wolves,” he planned to ask a lot of dumb questions, and he did.

Any tourist or pilgrim who has visited Rome will identify with much of Hutchinson’s account -- there is a large element of travelogue here. But any digression from the tourist track becomes a challenge: “Once you move beyond Bernini’s columns into the inner offices of the curia, the smiling face turns all too often into a snarl.”

This is a devastating account of Vatican public relations. “The first person to snarl at me was an old lady named Marjorie,” who seemingly snarled a lot and pays for it in this book. Although doyenne of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, she was -- and perhaps still is -- a famous obstructionist. No one, according to Hutchinson, wielded the Vatican’s famous omertà more stridently than Marjorie. Grown men, including bishops, would go catatonic if asked a question by a journalist who had not been cleared by Marjorie.

It wasn’t just Marjorie: It was an institutional policy to tell nothing except to a select 5 percent of reporters. The result, as Hutchinson points out, “is to alienate and make implacable enemies out of the 95 percent who don’t pass the Holy See’s litmus tests.” A Hutchinson friend nicknamed Friar Tuck explained: “The Vatican is like an aging woman who is long past her prime and knows it. She’s desperately attempting to maintain her dignity and what little allure she has left. ... When some pushy journalist starts asking all these seemingly trivial but sometimes very personal questions, the Vatican can be very testy.”

One of Hutchinson’s biggest surprises was the Vatican’s smallness. Not the buildings but the organization. Of the approximately 1,300 who work there, 150 or less make any significant decisions, he learned. One bishop, who works in the Apostolic Palace, said that about 20 people run the Catholic church. The rest do clerical work and such.

Add to this the Hutchinson conclusion that, “from the point of view of contemporary business standards, at least, the Vatican still operates quite literally in the Dark Ages.” So how does it survive?

There’s a paradox here. The Vatican is at once the most centralized -- in doctrinal control -- and decentralized -- in operations -- organization on earth. The author spells out the amazing numbers: about a billion Catholics; 4,200 bishops; 164 nations with diplomatic relations; all the nuns, priests, altar boys until altar girls were allowed -- the stupendous thing is that this little coterie in the Vatican orchestrated even the altar girl affair down to the last detail.

Such a small coterie with so much control over people’s most intimate lives could get the job done only by being very sure of itself. Don’t worry, writes Hutchinson: The curia is. The author seems to have no problem with the pope. But curial arrogance, he implies, would never have worked for the Twelve Apostles. Journalists, not surprisingly, are favorite victims of this hauteur. The author takes consolation from the fact that the curia treats everyone equally. Bishops coming in from the boonies (that is, anywhere beyond the Tiber) better watch out: “More than one U.S. bishop, accustomed to being treated like a celebrity or CEO back home -- in other words, as an all-powerful autocrat in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars -- has cooled his heels for days in Rome, waiting for some snotty curial monsignor to make room in his busy schedule to see him.”

Early one morning Hutchinson had an interview with “a top curial official” whom he calls Bishop Arnauld. The curia, explained Arnauld, is largely based on a patronage system. You get your job by being a friend of a friend of a bishop. Then, “you advance, oftentimes, by carefully and systematically eliminating all rivals for the position you want, including the person currently holding it. You eliminate people either through direct character assassination (hints about their sexual orientation, perhaps) or, more typically, by getting them transferred.”

Arnauld said only about half of curial members play this hardball: the ambitious ones. The trouble is that ambition is more likely to succeed in such a climate than nonambition. “You have to wonder if they even believe in God,” Arnauld, who says he’s not a hardball player, added.

A particularly tricky time, he went on, is the end of a pontificate, when curial members contend frantically to secure their jobs or get a better one, repay old favors, settle old scores.

Call it the Holy Spirit or whatever -- this bumbling bureaucracy has anchored one of the smoothest ships on earth century after century. Or perhaps the ship, with the huge impetus of history and grace, just sails on in spite of the bumblers.

Hutchinson’s account of the search for the remains of St. Peter, this very century, is a consoling reminder that arrogance alone is not enough.

Given that so much of the authenticity of the Roman Catholic church rests on the primacy of Peter and his settling and later execution in Rome, the church has long been eager, but unable, to locate the saint’s bones rumored to be buried under the basilica. Then, during World War II, a major excavation was launched by Pius XII. The professional archaeologists were placed under the supervision of the rector of the basilica, one Msgr. Ludwig Kaas. Although Kaas had no training in archaeology, he meddled so much that a deal had to be struck: If Kaas would leave the experts alone in the daytime, he could check on their work at night.

So, each night, Kaas descended into the belly of the Vatican with a flashlight, accompanied by a faithful workman. Whenever he found bones lying around, he scooped them up and put them in boxes. When finally the pros found what seemed to be the tomb of Peter, but before they had time to go into it, Kaas and his man gathered the bones into a box and put them in his office where they lay for 10 years. The pros, unaware, eventually made a disappointing report to the pope. Only after Kaas died did they learn, by accident, from the faithful servant about the box of bones.

This is not exactly a scoop; the story has been out there but played down by the Vatican for obvious reasons. Hutchinson uses it to throw light on the disadvantages of a closed and dysfunctional system in need of an overhaul.

There are reader-friendly chapters on all the usual Vatican baggage: relics, the true cross, Queen Christina’s Vatican sojourn, papal knights, where cardinals go to party. Inevitably there are pages devoted to the sex scandals of bygone popes.

Folks who complain about recent Vatican synods should hark back for perspective to the “cadaver synod” of 897 when Pope Stephen VI ordered the body of a predecessor, Pope Formosus, dug up, his corpse clad in papal vestments, and put on trial in St. John Lateran for perjury and other crimes.

The cadaver synod does not sound like a suitable scene for a child of 6, but Marozia, no ordinary kid, would go on to be “granddaughter of one pope, mistress of a second, the mother of a third, the aunt of a fourth and the grandmother of a fifth.”

Hutchinson disentangles the ubiquitous lust, conspiracies, coups and corruption on a monumental scale. Marozia was a prime conniver who suffered mightily for her sins. She was locked up in the dread Castel Sant’Angelo for 54 years, until Pope John XV “took pity” on the now 94-year-old woman, had her exorcised and then executed by smothering.

Why dig up such unpleasant stuff? It sure helps to sell books. But then, one doesn’t expect the same high standard from a journalist as from, say, a pope.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998