Guest Columnist The scandal that wasn't

A view of St Peters Basilica in Vatican City Jan 25 2015 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA CNA 1 26 15 Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

Two books are about to hit the shelves this week, supposedly testing Pope Francis' Vatican's capacity to withstand fresh scandals. The first and most important, "Merchants in the Temple" is authored by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of the 2012 blockbuster "His Holiness," which sparked the scandal known as the "Vatileaks" and resulted in the conviction of Pope Benedict XVI's butler, Paolo Gabriele, precisely for leaking Nuzzi the documents.

The second book, "Avarice: Documents Revealing Wealth, Scandals and Secrets of Francis' Church," by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, has the less pretentious attempt to convince the world that, surprise! The Vatican has money.

Reading "Merchants of Truth" immediately brings to mind George Weigel's observation about some authors in Italy: "The border between fact and fiction in Italian journalism is, in fact, not a border, but a membrane, across which all sorts of material passes in both directions."

Take a look, in fact, Nuzzi's opener: "It is the afternoon of September 12, 1978. Pope John Paul I, after only eighteen days of his pontificate, discovers that a powerful Masonic lobby with 120 members is active within the Curia... He then announced his plans for dramatic changes at  the Roman curia to Cardinal Villot, but... (t)he next day, at dawn, Sister Vincenza Taffarel finds the Pontiff's lifeless body in his bed." 

The book, in fact, which according to Nuzzi "tells the story of that war- through documents that have never before been made public- offering proof of a gigantic, and seemingly relentless, malfeasance that the Pontiff is challenging with singular courage and determination," is a convoluted, sometimes boring novel-style tale that intertwines the assassination of Pope Albino Lucciani with free masons among cardinals, gay lobbies, Italian mafia, international corporations and bugs planted inside the Vatican offices. 

Using –and abusing- allegedly secret documents and taped conversations, Nuzzi makes the case –already well known-that Pope Francis is determined to put an end to the practice the author describes: "For too long, in an incredibly facile and superficial manner, millions have been disbursed to pay for unbudgeted jobs that were executed without the required oversight and with ridiculously padded invoices. Many have taken advantage, pocketing even the donations of the faithful, the offerings that were supposed to go to the needy."

The second chapter, regarding the making of saints, opens with praising words toward Msgr. Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda and Francesca Chaouqui, precisely the two individuals that last weekend were arrested by the Vatican for leaking confidential documents to the press –maybe to Nuzzi himself. Vallejo Balda will be presented as a hero all along the book, especially in chapter nine.

Nuzzi clearly shows his lack of knowledge of Vatican proceedings, complaining that "making a saint" has an average price tag of 500,000 Euros. "We then have to consider the costs of all the thank you gifts required for the prelates who are invited to festivities and celebrations held at crucial moments in the process, to say a few words about the acts and miracles of the future saint or blessed."  

Nuzzi clearly ignores the expensive nature of theological, moral, historical and medical investigations required to make sure that a saint has the necessary "heroic virtues" and later that a miracle to his intercession is corroborated. And most importantly, ignores that no postulator of a saint, not even the ones of Archbishop Oscar Romero, have ever complained about the cost of the process. 

In the third chapter the author aims to describe the murky management of Peter's Pence –mostly a fair claim- and to tell the "lavish" style of too many cardinals: "The cardinals of the Curia reside in princely dwellings of 400, 500, even 600 square meters." It is true that, as in many other financial areas, the Vatican real estate is in need of reform. But Nuzzi ignores that although some Cardinals have indeed scandalized with the lavishness of their quarters, many other Cardinals and Vatican officials are forced to live in gigantic apartments built centuries ago that they never chose, and sometimes can barely afford. For example, after the signing of the Lateran pacts that made peace between the Vatican and the Italian state, Mussolini built the colossal Vatican Building of San Calisto, at the Trastevere, with apartments for cardinals so large that many can't afford to cool it down during the summer or warm it up during the winter. And that's barely the Cardinals' fault.  In the same vein, Nuzzi tries to make the case of how much the Vatican would earn if it rented their real estate property at market prices rather than at the discounted prices they give to curia members. The argument is ridiculous. Vatican officials make significantly low salaries and receive lousy medical insurance and retirement plans. The only advantage the Vatican can offer to them, is a reduced rent, as well as gasoline, food, home products and medicines free of the Italian taxes. In order to rent Vatican property at market prices, the Vatican should have to pay competitive salaries, which at the end would be far more expensive.

Nuzzi's book is not lacking of genuine claims, like the fact that, until the recent reforms only 20 cents of each Euro from Peter's Pence reached the poor; or that there was a major mismanagement of very large amounts of money at different Roman dicasterios –consequence of corruption, overspending and accounting incompetence; or that there are major holes in the Vatican's pension funds –to the tune of 800 million Euro.

Nevertheless, most of the book reads as a never ending string of gossip about the peccadilloes of little-known monsignors who live a lavish, while not utterly corrupt, life; most of which has already been material of abundant coverage in the Italian press. 

The author also adds endless internal memos and "confidential" letters to make the sad point: corruption, mismanagement and sheer incompetence abounds… without ever acknowledging that the financial reform, even if far form completed, is one of the most evident successes of Pope Francis' pontificate.

In chapter 10, Nuzzi does everything possible to discredit the record of Cardinal Pell in Australia, even disfiguring or making up facts of his past. But the author has to surrender to the fact that the Australian Cardinal is loyal to the Pope's desire for reform and that he has accomplished some victories, although not all the ones the author believe he should have. 

In the last chapter the author asks if Pope Francis will resign. The issue of a possible Francis resignation is never mentioned in the chapter, except for the title. But he does raise the question: 

"Will the Pope Win the Battle? It is hard to answer this question with any certainty. I believe that his project cannot be deferred or avoided, but it is hard to argue that he will succeed in bringing to completion his ambitious mission."

In short, way too many words conclude what everyone knows, without the need to read an endless stream of secret, utterly boring memos.

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