At first blush, the release of two keenly anticipated books promising bombshell revelations about Vatican financial scandals would seem to represent something of a “Casablanca” moment. That is, they seem likely to elicit pro forma professions of shock over things which, for the most part, everyone already knew.
For instance, Gianluigi Nuzzi’s book “Via Crucis” (in English, “Merchants in the Temple”) describes how cardinals live in elegant and spacious quarters, often at zero cost, and that in general Vatican-owned apartments often bring in substantially below-market rents because residents have been cut sweetheart deals.
Meanwhile, Emiliano Fittipaldi’s book “Avarizia” details how commercial operations inside the Vatican walls – a gas station, pharmacy, tobacco shop, and supermarket – generate tens of millions of euro in income by selling products at discounted prices due to tax exemptions.
In theory, those services are reserved to Vatican personnel, but Fittipaldi uses reports from the Government of the Vatican City State to prove that the numbers tell a different story.
The tobacco shop, he writes, takes in 10 million euro a year. If all those cigarettes were being purchased only by Vatican employees, it would mean every one of them would have to “smoke like Turks” around the clock just to keep up. Obviously, people who aren’t supposed to be shopping in these places are finding ways in.
Little of this will come as news for old Rome hands.
When my wife and I lived in the city full-time during the late 1990s and 2000s, for instance, she had a friend who worked in a Vatican office who would occasionally lend her an employee card to get into the supermarket. My wife would report afterwards that she wasn’t sure any of her fellow shoppers actually worked in the Vatican, since they mostly seemed to be people like her.
That’s not to say the new books fall flat, because they put names and hard numbers on what had previously been anecdotal impressions of scandal and internal conflicts.
That said, it’s unlikely their deepest impact lies in their contents. Instead, it’s more about the changed Vatican landscape these books both exemplify and exacerbate.
In a phrase, they represent the death of the “Pontifical Secret.”
“Pontifical secrecy” is a well-defined concept in Church law applying to several categories of information, such as materials related to the naming of bishops and reports from papal diplomats. More broadly, however, it evokes the assumption that all communication with the pope is confidential, and it’s always up to him, and him alone, to decide whether to make any of it public.
That obviously didn’t happen here.
Both Nuzzi and Fittipaldi had remarkable access to confidential material supposedly reserved to the pontiff – an audio recording of a meeting with Francis and senior cardinals, reports from papal study commissions, income estimates for various Vatican operations, and so on. There may be few genuine bombshells, but the leaks themselves are real.
For sure, pontifical secrecy always has been honored as much in the breach as the observance.
Not so long ago, for example, the propositions adopted at the end of Synods of Bishops were regarded as private recommendations for the pontiff and were never released by the Vatican. Yet within 48 hours of every synod being over, those propositions would routinely show up in the Italian press, often first in the left-leaning Catholic news agency Adista.
To take another example, during the John Paul II years virtually every major Vatican document leaked out at various stages during the drafting process, and often by the time the text was officially published it seemed almost anti-climactic.
Though the total volume of leaks may not be greater now than before, two other things clearly have changed: the pope, and the media climate in which he’s constrained to operate.
Because of heightened public interest in Pope Francis, virtually anything that leaks out today is destined to become a sensation, dramatically increasing the market for those leaks. There’s also a much wider range of outlets trawling for those scoops, and whatever inhibitions once may have inclined them to respect an institution’s desire for confidentiality have long since frayed.
That landscape has been confirmed over the last month not only by the new books, but also by the leak of a letter to the pontiff signed by 13 cardinals at the beginning of the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the family.
As a result, anyone who passes information to the pope today – no matter what it’s about, what form it takes, or how exalted their position supposedly is – needs to know there’s a good chance it will become public knowledge.
Some may see all this as a welcome dose of transparency, arguing that Catholic faithful around the world have a right to know what’s unfolding in the corridors of power. Others will fret that the collapse of confidentiality will induce people to be less than candid with the pope, and perhaps ensure that some things never reach him at all.
Still others will rue a breakdown of trust inside the Vatican, not to mention a lack of integrity among people who’ve pledged to maintain secrecy but acted otherwise. All those reactions, however, amount to after-the-fact exercises.
Back in 2013, in the wake of the first Vatican leaks affair fueled by Nuzzi the year before, Francis made the release of confidential documents a serious crime under the laws of the Vatican City State, styling it as an offense against state security. His corps of gendarmes has shown it’s in earnest about enforcement, recently arresting two insiders for allegedly leaking material to Nuzzi for the new book.
However understandable or defensible those moves may be, they probably won’t do much to change today’s bottom line: Everything about the Vatican may still be a mystery, but precious little will stay a secret.