ROME – Every so often, Vatican-watchers find themselves with a set of parts that don’t really add up to a coherent whole. That doesn’t make the parts any less interesting, however, so herewith a few recent nuggets from the Vatican beat, without any pretense of a grand narrative to weave them together.

The obsession with Orlandi

As I’ve said before, it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the hold that the case of Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee who vanished in 1983 and whose fate has generated the wildest conspiracy theories imaginable, still has on the Italian imagination.

Two episodes this week provided additional proof of the point.

First, popular Italian rapper Fedez found himself in hot water Tuesday after a podcast in which he was participating, where the Orlandi case came up.

An Italian journalist named Gianluigi Nuzzi was on the panel discussing the latest developments, including news that the Vatican plans to open an investigation. At one point Fedez broke in, saying, “Can I say one thing? They’ve never found her,” and then broke into hysterical laughter, perhaps trying to satirize the constant cycle of purported bombshell revelations in the Italian press that never seem to deliver on the hype.

Nevertheless, the idea of Fedez laughing while the Orlandi family remains desperate to know what happened to their missing daughter didn’t go down well.

Bear in mind that over the years, Fedez has been accused of homophobia (he once rapped of a fellow artist who’s gay that “he’s eaten more hot dogs than kraut”), insensitivity to poverty and hunger (he once had a birthday party in front of a Milan supermarket in which revelers threw fresh food into the street for no apparent reason), and even defamation of Italy’s highly respected carabinieri (he once called them “sons of bitches.”)

None of that ever put much of a dent in Fedez’s appeal, but his poor taste on Orlandi boomeranged badly. The rapper quickly was forced to call Pietro Orlandi, Emanuela’s brother, who’s devoted his life to seeking the truth about his sister, to apologize.

Second, my wife and I had an appointment this week with an eminent Roman physician, a distinguished specialist who’s considered the best of the best. Normally when we speak he’s all business, but this time he couldn’t help himself – knowing that we cover the Vatican, he had to ask about Orlandi.

After we chatted a while, his final comment seemed oracular in terms of Italian attitudes: “The agony that family must have experienced for forty years,” he said, “is unimaginable.”

I suspect that’s the key to the enduring Italian obsession with the Orlandi case. It’s not the alleged mob connection, or the geopolitics, or even a purported Vatican sex ring. It’s that at its core, this is a story about a missing child and a grieving family – and in Italy, family isn’t just everything, it’s pretty much the only thing.

In turn, that cultural reality explains why unless the Vatican succeeds in convincing Italians that it’s revealed everything it knows, the Orlandi story will continue to haunt it.

Rooting for the Expo

In November, the International Bureau of Expositions will decide which of four cities will host the “Expo 2030,” the massive year-long event that used to be know as the World’s Fair. The candidates are Busan in South Korea, Odesa in Ukraine, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and, finally, Rome.

Officially speaking, of course, the Vatican will have no position on the outcome. Privately, I suspect more than one monsignore will be on bended knee praying the Eternal City gets the nod.

Here’s the reason: Rome is already gearing up to host the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year in 2025, which is expected to bring somewhere around 25 million additional visitors through the city. Officials recently announced an ambitious $2 billion public works plan to get the city ready for the influx.

Additional billions have already been pledged should Rome be selected for the Expo, and officials have said they’d try to see that at least some of those projects, especially the ones involving public transportation, are ready early for the Jubilee.

In other words, if the Expo is looming down the line, Rome will have greater incentive to take its Jubilee facelift seriously. If not, both federal and municipal officials may be tempted to see the Jubilee more as an isolated event with no future payoff, and be correspondingly less motivated.

The secretary general of the International Bureau of Expositions, Dimitri Kerkentzes, was in town this week to tour the proposed Expo sites, and local officials seemed optimistic.

In the meantime, the city is in final preparations mode for another big event this year – the Ryder Cup championship, to be played at the city’s Marco Simone Golf & Country Club Sept. 25-Oct. 1, and which many Romans see as a early test of the city’s readiness for still bigger moments to come.

Dead souls

This week’s prize for best literary reference in Vatican commentary has to go to Hernán Reyes Alcaide of the Spanish site Religión Digital. On Monday, Reyes published an essay about new tell-all books by two German prelates, Cardinal Gerhard Müller and Archbishop Georg Gänswein, in which he accused them of being “modern Chichikovs.”

The allusion is to an 1842 novel by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, in which the protagonist, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, is an enigmatic gentleman of modest means with a gift for ingratiating himself with local officials and rural landowners. His aim is to acquire ownership, on the cheap, of hundreds of serfs who are still listed as alive on outdated census forms but who are actually dead.

As the novel unfolds, it emerges that the motive for this seemingly bizarre scheme is to take out a large bank loan against the fictitious value of those serfs, and then abscond with the money before anyone realizes they don’t actually exist. In that sense, the Chichikov character is a metaphor for anyone seeking to profit from the dead.

In Reyes’ analysis, that’s precisely what Müller and Gänswein are doing – using the recently departed Pope Benedict XVI as a cudgel to advance their “ultra-conservative” agenda against Pope Francis, and profiting from their book sales in the process. They’re free to do so now, Reyes suggests, because Benedict is no longer around to disassociate himself from their use of his name.

One can, of course, agree or disagree with that analysis, and you’ll find plenty of Catholic opinion on both sides. For one thing, surely a certain benefit of the doubt has to go to Müller and Gänswein, who were both very close to the late pontiff, in terms of knowing his mind.

Whatever one concludes, however, there’s no disputing that Reyes at least displayed laudable erudition under deadline pressure.


Pope Francis has given another interview, this one to our colleague Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press. While there’s a great deal of interesting material, probably the biggest headline in the mainstream press concerned his strong condemnation of laws criminalizing homosexuality.

Declaring such laws “unjust,” Francis said the Catholic Church should work to put an end to them. “It must do this. It must do this,” he said.

In truth, that’s not a departure from previous Vatican statements on the subject, though it certainly is the strongest language from a pope to date.

In 2008, the Vatican declined to back a UN resolution which, among other things, called for decriminalizing homosexuality, over concerns that the language of the resolution could also promote same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples. However, a Vatican statement at the time insisted that the church supports decriminalization in itself.

“The Catholic Church maintains that free sexual acts between adult persons must not be treated as crimes to be punished by civil authorities,” said an editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

In February 2013, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, at the time President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said he “would like the church to fight against” the criminalization of homosexuality. In March 2014, Cardinal Peter Turkson said “homosexuals are not criminals” and do not deserve incarceration after Uganda adopted a law imposing criminal sanctions up to life in prison for some sexual acts.

For whatever it’s worth, the Vatican City State never had to decriminalize homosexuality because it was never a crime to begin with. When the Lateran Pacts were signed in 1929 which, among other things, created the new City State, the Vatican modeled its penal law on the Italian penal code of 1889, known as the “Zanardelli Code.”

The Zanardelli Code was considered progressive for the time, abolishing capital punishment, acknowledging a limited right to strike, introducing parole and recognizing mental illness as a legitimate exemption from criminal prosecution. In addition, it also contained no crime of homosexuality, so the Vatican’s never had one either.

Still, there are times when a papal soundbite may not so much change church teaching as put an exclamation point on it, and perhaps this is one of those cases.