The Vatican is the smallest independent city-state in the world, an oligarchy surrounded by Rome and ruled by the Pope. The authority of the Pope provides a law unto itself for the global Roman Catholic Church.
In recent decades, the lack of self-regulation and accountability among key members of the Catholic clergy has become painfully apparent, accelerating the Church's problems. In the United States and Europe, the Catholic Church has lost followers and weekly mass attendance has plummeted. In the U.S, the number of seminarians studying to be priests has dropped by two-thirds from what it was forty years ago, and monetary contributions to the Catholic Church have dwindled.
In April 2005, the College of Cardinals elected German-born Cardinal Joseph Alosius Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th head of the Catholic Church. Yesterday, the Pope, 85, stunned Catholics when he resigned, citing lack of vigor due to old age. His surprise resignation presents both an opportunity and a challenge.
The challenge comes from a situation the Church hasn't faced for centuries. A new Pope will reign while the former Pope yet lives. It's also an opportunity, since the Church remains in crisis. A new Pope willing to tackle unaddressed problems may inspire confidence.
Fact and Fiction
In Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, my just-published fiction thriller, the Jesuits blackmail the fictional Pope into giving them the authority to clean up corruption in the Catholic Church. This is not the reason Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Yet the novel's backdrop of financial and sexual scandals in the Church is fact-based.
Here's one of the most famous examples of many. The late Archbishop Paul Marcinkus evaded indictment in a financial scandal and avoided questions in the investigation of the London hanging-murder of Roberto Calvi, former head of Banco Ambrosiano. Calvi's suspicious death was initially falsely ruled a suicide by British authorities.
Roberto Calvi was Catholic. Suicide is considered by many Catholics to be an unpardonable sin. Archbishop Marcinkus wasn't a suspect in the death, yet he didn't come forward to tell Italian investigators what he knew of the events preceding his colleague's "suicide." Pope John Paul II -- and later Pope Benedict XVI -- sheltered Archbishop Marcinkus and let him remain silent.
Crisis and Denial
Catholics in the United States were dismayed as scores of priests were accused of having sexually abused children over several decades.
Pope Benedict XVI's election didn't inspire confidence that sex abuse would be adequately addressed, but that lack of confidence was initially based only on rumor. As Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985, he thwarted an attempt to defrock a priest who was a convicted child molester, and in 2010, news was made public about his signed letter to that effect. As Pope Benedict XVI, he expressed a firm resolve to clean up the sex abuse and "filth" in the Catholic Church, yet cardinals and bishops who protected predators have not been held accountable in the eyes of many Catholics.
On May 8, 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston became the first cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church compelled to testify in a sexual abuse case for his role in "overseeing" priests. He was forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston. The Church hierarchy gave him a cushy landing. In 2004, he became Archpriest of Rome's beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Many U.S. Catholics stood in shocked disbelief when Cardinal Law was chosen to preside over Pope John Paul II's 2005 requiem mass.
Catholic Money Disappears
The Vatican's financial scandals are ongoing. The Vatican Bank is currently mired in a scandal involving alleged money transfers and dodgy bank accounts. In the summer of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI's confidant and former Vatican Bank head Gotti Tedeschi was detained by Italy's military police in a corruption investigation involving an Italian subsidiary of Spain's Banco Santander. Tedeschi's files allegedly yielded evidence of Church complicity in circumventing European money-laundering rules.
In my novel, the Jesuits withhold funds to force cooperation in cleaning up corruption. In reality, U.S. Catholics are withholding funds. The Catholic Church has global annual expenses in excess of $100 billion. At least three U.S. archdioceses have been forced into bankruptcy in anticipation of future settlements of sex-abuse cases. U.S. Catholics now donate less than half as much per household as their Protestant counterparts, giving only around $6 billion per year.
The Catholic Church has lost followers partly due to frustration over the actions of its administration. It is in the grips of its worst crisis since the death of Christ more than 2000 years ago. But this crisis is a crisis of confidence. For many, the teachings of the Church still resonate, but its leadership has unabashedly failed to live up to those teachings, and unashamedly conspired to cover up those failings.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is the Catholic Church's opportunity to send a strong signal to its remaining members by electing a new Pope committed to rooting out corruption in the Church.