ROME – A great deal of commentary has been unleashed by the recent denouement of the Vatican’s “Trial of the Century,” which ended with convictions for nine of ten defendants, including five years and six months in prison for Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
Amid the torrent of reaction, one of the more interesting voices belongs to Cataldo Intrieri, the lawyer who represented Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former official of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State who was sentenced to seven years and six months in jail for his role in the complex, and controversial, $400 million purchase of a London property.
In a Dec. 19 essay for Linkiesta, an online Italian daily, Intrieri asserted that despite the good will of the three judges who presided over the trial, “the standard of the investigation and of the trial itself remained far below that of a state based on the rule of law.”
Among other things, Intrieri pointed out that defense attorneys had wanted to question both Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, regarding their roles in the London affair, given that evidence suggests both were actively involved at key stages of the transactions. Those requests, however, were denied.
“If we consider that even in a state like Italy, institutional and government leaders have been questioned in various cases, we get a sense of how much ground has to be covered before we can talk about a ‘fair Vatican trial,’” he wrote.
Overall, Intrieri asserted that the trial amounted to an effort to criminalize what was really just bad judgment.
“It’s a question simply of poor administration and awful investments, for which there should have been a request for compensation in a civil case, but the popular and populist narrative required the theater of a penal process and an autodafé,” he said, invoking the memory of the Spanish Inquisition.
Most basically, Intrieri argued that the trial revealed a structural problem with the Vatican’s system of criminal justice, which lacks a genuine separation of powers.
Among other things, Intrieri said that in order to claim to uphold the rule of law, at a minimum the Vatican requires a professional judiciary selected through an open competition and, once appointed, incapable of being removed, “autonomous and separate from the executive branch of government.”
The fact that judges in the Vatican system are directly appointed by the pope and subject to his authority, Intrieri said, not only creates practical problems, such as artificially limiting the talent pool to people a given pope may know and trust, but more deeply it creates obvious conflicts of interest “which can damage the image of impartiality of the judicial body.”
(Though Intrieri did not make the point, it’s worth observing that on Dec. 4, twelve days before the tribunal delivered its verdicts, Pope Francis signed a motu proprio which, among other things, conferred a new status including pay raises upon both the prosecutor and the judge – a direct reminder, in effect, that they work for him.)
“Simply put, and it’s stupefying this hasn’t been noted by many authoritative commentators, these are the inevitable challenges that every democracy has to face,” Intrieri wrote, “and that even the State of the Vatican can’t avoid if it wants to maintain its credibility and moral authority over time as the center of the universal church and a symbol of human rights.”
Of course, Intrieri is hardly the first person to suggest that Pope Francis has a problem with power.
In 2017 posters appeared around Rome mockingly asking “Where is your mercy?” after Francis cracked down on a couple of traditionalist orders, and in the same year, the book The Dictator Pope immortalized the critique of Francis as leading “the most tyrannical and unprincipled papacy of modern times.”
It was relatively easy to write off such criticism, however, because it seemed so obviously ideologically motivated. It was difficult to escape the impression that if Francis had been using his authority to muzzle liberal theologians, for instance, or to enforce use of the Latin Mass, such critics would be the first to cheer.
Intrieri, however, is a different case. He’s a veteran attorney specializing in financial affairs, and politically he’s been involved in initiatives of the Italian center-left, not the conservative and traditionalist circles generally hostile to Pope Francis. He was part of a working group sponsored by Senator Luigi Zanda, a veteran leftist, and has devoted his legal expertise over the years, among other things, to supporting clinics and health care personnel involved in IVF procedures.
Intrieri joins figures such as Alberto Melloni, a veteran church historian and exponent of the progressive “Bologna school”; Luis Badilla, a longtime Rome-based journalist born in Chile who cut his teeth supporting the left-wing government of President Salvador Allende and then accompanying the martyred president’s wife and daughter in their efforts to raise money to oppose Chile’s military regime; and Luigi Panella, a lawyer who represented another of the defendants in the Vatican trial, and who’s a protégé of a former Minister of Justice under the center-left government of former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and who himself has represented another former center-left Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.
At trial, Panella was especially sharp: “An absolutist conception of power in the temporal sphere and in civil government, dating back to a very different historical and ecclesial context, today seems incompatible with the principles of the rule of law,” he said.
In other words, the concerns about papal power circulating today aren’t coming just from the usual suspects.
To be sure, it can’t be said enough that the main reason the trial has brought these issues to the fore is because Pope Francis wanted to face alleged corruption head-on, and he wanted the criminal tribunal of the Vatican City State to do its job. After decades – indeed, really, centuries – in which the Vatican did its level best to try to sweep such matters under the rug, the pontiff arguably deserves enormous credit for taking a different approach.
What reactions such as Intrieri’s may suggest, however, is that the process of reform unleashed by Francis hasn’t reached a conclusion with this trial.
If anything, the lasting legacy of the trial may be to reveal the unfinished business of reform: Rethinking the limits of papal authority, at least when he’s acting as an administrator rather than an apostle.
While no one can question a pope’s capacity to rule on matters of faith and morals, equally no one seriously can argue that conflating executive, legislative and judicial power in the Vatican City State is part of the divine mandate of the church. Such an arrangement can change, and a growing chorus of voices appears to be suggesting perhaps it’s time to do just that.