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Jon M. Sweeney Headshot

The Men Who Ruin the Pope

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There have been bad popes, to be sure. I don't mean "bad" in the sense that they performed their duties badly, but "bad" in that they clearly were not good people. Even -- or especially -- conservative Catholic historians will tell you this.

But it's been a long time since we have had such a pope. The modern era has seen a lot of good men come to the Vatican wanting to inspire the world toward more faith, more observance and more good works, as Christ's vicar on earth. What is it, then, that spoils their good intentions?

Simply put, the men who surround the pope, known as the Roman curia, are mostly to blame. These are the bankers, the lawyers, the publicists, the career politicians and the bureaucrats of the Roman Catholic Church. There are thousands of them. They are, in fact, the men who run everything.

You may have heard about the VatiLeaks scandal this year involving Pope Benedict XVI's personal butler, a married family man named Paolo Gabriele, the closest layperson to the pope, who was convicted of theft for photocopying private documents, sentenced to 18 months under house arrest. We know that he didn't do it for money. Even the prosecutors will admit that the pope's butler did not earn a penny stealing documents and then leaking them to journalists. Why did he do it?

Gabriele was acting out of love for the pope and his Church. He copied and stole 82 boxes of documents that demonstrate how the Roman curia thwart the pope's good intentions at every turn. Some of the documents demonstrated how the curia resist attempts to bring spending under control. Some show the bickering that happens behind closed doors, and the attempts to use marketing to cover-up problems. And some of the documents simply show men in important positions who are incompetent, lazy or both.

Now, on Nov. 12, according to the Catholic News Service, an accomplice of the butler, a computer technician by the name of Claudio Sciarpelletti, has also been found guilty by a Vatican court. Sciarpelletti was sentenced to four months in a Roman jail, but then the judge quickly cut the sentence in half saying that Sciarpelletti had never done anything wrong before. Of course he hadn't! Like the butler, the computer tech was acting out of love for his pope and his Church.

The rumor is that Pope Benedict XVI will likely pardon his butler, and then give him another position in the Vatican, for life. That would be a just reward for his "crimes."

But then, how can this situation be fixed, so that good things can get done by the good people in the Vatican? For starters, it would be terrific to see the next pope selected from outside of the College of Cardinals. Upon a pope's death, a conclave is held in which a large standing committee known as the College of Cardinals is sequestered in the Sistine Chapel until they select the next pope by a two-thirds majority.

More than seven centuries have gone by since the College of Cardinals last picked someone from outside of their own club for the job. In 1378 the Archbishop of Bari was elected from outside the conclave, becoming Pope Urban VI. More memorably, 84 years earlier, in 1294, Pope Celestine V was selected by the College when he was simply a hermit in the mountains outside Rome. Celestine was shocked to be told that the College wanted him to be the next pope. He reluctantly accepted the job and then ruled for only 15 weeks. The curia completely overpowered him. Celestine V never had a chance. Then he became the only pope in history to ever willingly quit and walk away.

I am one among millions of Catholics around the world who are watching the VatiLeaks scandal involving the pope's butler, and now the Vatican computer technician, and thinking: the problem is not the butler and the techie. The problem is not the pope. It is the curia. If we cannot fire them all and start over then let's at least pick the next pope from outside Rome, outside the College of Cardinals. Let's find a good man who wants to do good, and who won't allow the curia to mess him up.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of 'The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation,' recently optioned by HBO, Inc.