ROME – Fans of TV’s “NCIS” know that the show’s hero, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, has a list of rules he imparts to agents on his team as a distillation of his long experience, ranging from “always carry a knife” to “never be unreachable.”
Though I’ve never quite codified them, I suppose I’ve got a similar list of rules developed over the years about covering the Vatican. Personal favorites include “never assume cunning when incompetence will do”, and “better to be right than fast.”
Today, I focus on another such rule, which may well be the most important of all: “Never forget the Vatican is in Italy.”
That’s by way of saying that despite the Vatican’s pretense of being a global institution, and despite decades of alleged “internationalization” of its senior personnel beginning with St. Paul VI in the 1970s, the Vatican remains a stubbornly monocultural environment in which Italian ways and means almost always triumph over alleged policies, structures and rules. If there’s something about the Vatican you find puzzling, putting it in Italian context probably will solve the riddle about eighty percent of the time.
Let me describe a situation I encountered recently, and then I’ll unpack why it’s relevant to making sense of the Vatican’s operational environment.
Right now, the nation of Italy has no higher priority than ensuring as many people as possible receive the COVID vaccine as quickly as possible. The government recently imposed a mandate for possessing a “Green Pass,” meaning proof of vaccination, for a wide variety of activities, including hitting Italians where they live – forcing them to display a Green Pass before they can eat inside a restaurant.
Beyond fears of strained medical resources and loss of life, the push to contain COVID is also related to a sense that it’s been a miracle the Italian economy hasn’t collapsed yet under the weight of the various pandemic-related closures, and one more serious shutdown could push it over the brink. Hence the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi feels it’s working against a ticking clock, and officials have said repeatedly they’ll do whatever it takes.
So, one might imagine a foreign resident such as myself, who’s got a legal residency permit and all the other relevant documents, would have no trouble getting the shot. And yet …
And yet, Italy in the public sector is also remarkably top-heavy with bureaucracy, which tends to make it sluggish and unimaginative in a crisis. In addition, Italians also have a completely different sense of time, which means their version of “urgent” can look an awful lot like delay to the rest of the world.
That’s relevant to me because I have the misfortune of seeking to enroll myself in the Italian health system, in order to be eligible to receive the vaccine, at a time when the computer systems of the region of Lazio, which includes Rome, are under attack by hackers seeking to extort ransom to unlock the affected data. The first wave of the attack shut down the reservation system in Lazio for the COVID vaccine, and it’s since expanded to include most of the operations of the health care system.
As a result, when I showed up at the offices of Assistenza Sanitaria Lazio, the regional branch of the national system, I was informed that nothing could be done right now because the computers were still down.
Actually, I was first informed by one agent that I had to go to the national tax office to get a printout of my tax number, even though the number is actually stamped on my residency permit, because the gods of bureaucracy must be served. On my second attempt, I was informed that the office was closed in the afternoons despite the fact its web page clearly proclaimed it open.
It was my third attempt, on a languid August morning when we were the only people seeking assistance, when I was told by a clearly bored agent that because the computer system still wasn’t working, there was nothing he could do.
I ask you, does this sound like a system committed to universal vaccination? Would it really be that difficult to register my information by hand for right now and enter it later, so that in the meantime I can get the shot everyone here claims they desperately want me to have?
My story is relevant to the Vatican because the very same traits apply there, in spades. We’ve seen it from the beginning of the sexual abuse crisis, as time and again the Vatican has seemed slow to act and overly beholden to its own bureaucracy. Indeed, over the arc of the crisis, many Americans often imputed denial or cover-up to the Vatican when, in reality, it was more about the misfit of a largely Italian response to other parts of the world.
As I’ve often said, America is a microwave culture while Italy is a crockpot culture. Here, patience is still a virtue and waiting is an art. That can certainly make the food taste better, but when compounded by the lethargy and immobility of a massive bureaucracy, it’s also often a prescription for solving yesterday’s problem when you’re already living in tomorrow.
For better or worse, however, this is still Italy. When you’re trying to make sense of the Vatican, it’s a good idea to bear it in mind.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr