Over almost twenty years on the Vatican beat, here’s one iron-clad certainty I’ve reached: A lot of stories that get covered around the world as “Vatican” news actually have much more to do with Italy and its foibles, rather than anything specifically related to the Holy See.
Of course, given the profound way Catholicism has shaped the culture of Italy, to say that some scandal or questionable move is actually more Italian than Vatican doesn’t quite get the Church off the hook, but it’s still a distinction worth making.
A recent court decision in Italy illustrates the point as well as anything else.
In a nutshell, Italy’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that the theft of roughly $4.70 worth of sausage and cheese by a homeless man in 2011 didn’t constitute a crime, because the culprit in this case, a Ukrainian national named Roman Ostriakov, was driven by hunger to commit the deed.
“The condition of the accused, and the circumstances in which the possession of the merchandise occurred, demonstrates that he took the small amount of food in response to an immediate and non-ignorable exigency to feed himself,” the court held, “acting therefore in a state of necessity.”
For the record, the Court of Cassation was responding to an appeal from a prosecutor in Genoa, who had argued that because Ostriakov never actually left the supermarket before being arrested, he should have been charged with attempted theft rather than actual theft.
In some quarters, the ruling is being touted as a big win for the little guy, and, inevitably, many are connecting it to the impact of Pope Francis and his special affection for people on the peripheries of life.
For a large chunk of Italians, however, the reaction has been a bit grumpier. How in the hell, they wonder, did it take a three-part legal process, including the initial hearing, an appeal, and the supreme court ruling – undoubtedly costing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Euros in legal fees – to reach such a no-brainer conclusion?
An editorial in one of Italy’s biggest dailies raised the utterly reasonable question of whether, in a country where the estimated cost of corruption every year is $60 billion, this is really the best use of the legal system’s time and energy.
So, what’s the connection to the Vatican?
Well, the Vatican has its own dubious trial currently underway – the “Vatileaks 2.0 trial,” in which three former members of a papal commission on finances and two journalists are charged with conspiring to leak and publish secret documents from that commission.
The case reaches back to last November, when the two journalists published books based in part on the leaked documents. Since then, Vatican prosecutors and judges have poured countless hours into collecting testimony, hiring technical experts to reconstruct chains of social media exchanges, ruling on motions, staging painstaking court hearings, and so on.
Naturally, the whole thing has become a media sensation, and it raises questions on at least two different levels.
First, it seems abundantly clear that the main effects of this trial so far have been:
- To give a new lease on life to the books published by the journalists (which weren’t selling especially well before, anywhere outside Italy).
- To supply an otherwise implausible media platform to the defendants, prominently including Italian PR consultant Francesca Chaouqui, who seems to have something of a martyr complex.
Because it’s blindingly obvious that the journalists, at least, will never spend a minute behind bars in a Vatican jail even if convicted, since they’re citizens of Italy rather than the Holy See, many can’t help wondering what the point is.
Second, it seems clear the Vatican has more serious fish to fry.
A new tribunal created by Pope Francis to judge cases of bishops accused of covering up sex abuse crimes is struggling to get off the ground, there’s a backlog of cases in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against clergy directly accused of committing abuse, and to date the Vatican has yet to prosecute a single instance of financial crime flagged by its own watchdog units.
Put in context, however, there’s a seemingly self-evident answer to what otherwise seems inexplicable: This is simply how criminal justice in Italy works. Once the bureaucratic wheels start grinding on a case, no power on Heaven or earth seems to be able to get them to stop until the final procedural end-game has been reached.
That’s not an excuse, of course, and the difference between the Vatican and Italy is that the Italian Prime Minister can’t simply snap his fingers and make a legal case go away, whereas, at least in theory, a pope could.
However, it does suggest another way of seeing a good chunk of Vatican news.
Whenever an outfit in the Vatican does something that seems obtuse or tone-deaf, rather than ascribing it to clericalism, or patriarchy, or some Da Vinci Code-style plot, often the most straight-forward explanation simply begins, “When in Rome …”