'Behind The Scenes' At The Vatican: The Politics Of Picking A New Pope
The years of his papacy had seen "moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments," Pope Benedict XVI told some 100,000 spectators gathered in St. Peter's Square Wednesday during his final address. "There have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us ... and the Lord seemed to sleep."
As Benedict becomes the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years and cardinals gather in Rome to choose his successor, a series of scandals — child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents — has left the Vatican reeling.
"It's amazing. It's unprecedented," veteran Vatican reporter John Thavis tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I would say most people around the Vatican, including journalists, are a little bit disoriented. Number one, the pope shocked them when he announced he was retiring. ... Number two, there have been new questions every day, and answers haven't really been forthcoming very quickly. It almost seems as if Benedict made his decision without necessarily scripting the entire process in advance and leaving his Vatican aides to scramble for answers. ... [E]veryone here believes it's a historic-making moment, and no one here really knows what's going to happen next."
Thavis, who covered the Vatican for nearly 30 years for the Catholic News Service, is the author of the newly published The Vatican Diaries. The book is a collection of accounts of doctrinal disputes, power struggles and personal scandals, in which everyone from diplomats to ushers share information and gossip.
"[D]ecision-making at the Vatican is less organized, is less hierarchical," Thavis says. "It's much more based on individual personalities than the public imagines."
On his own thoughts on why Benedict resigned
"Benedict of course is very enigmatic. ... He'll lay out a phrase like ... 'divisions that have disfigured the church' and more or less allow people to interpret it at will. I think he was referring to some of these power struggles that have been evident in recent years, and I think he was sending a signal that the next pope should come in and take care of this, at least address the problem. As for his motives, unfortunately for Pope Benedict, it's his history of being second-guessed on his motives. I think probably we can take it at face value that he felt he simply did not have the energy to carry out the role of pope in the modern age. ... There are many frustrations in Benedict's career as pope that he probably feels quite deeply because, I think, he's a sensitive man. He feels the hurt deeply when someone betrays him, and he feels the hurt deeply when he's criticized."
On the "Italian way" of doing things at the Vatican
"For an Italian business operation, perhaps awarding contracts to your friends in the industry is not an unusual thing. It shouldn't really be happening at the Vatican. ... In the Vatican, people get jobs by being recommandato, right? They need somebody's connection to get the job. If you want a parking place, you need to go through these connections. Almost everything done at the Vatican is through connections. So when we talk about corruption, it's often this very petty kind of corruption that, as I say, is part of the process of living in Italy. And yet people are questioning, 'Should it be part of the process of operations at the Vatican?' "
On what the cardinals will be looking for when they choose the next pope
"The cardinals are all pretty conservative ... and you're not going to find too many cardinals in that group who are ready to stake out brand new ground for the church or new positions or radical changes. ... I'm sure one of those priorities will be some kind of closer management of the Roman curia, and that has led to the idea that the cardinals will be looking for a CEO type. ... I think the cardinals will also be looking for someone who is a great communicator. They need someone not necessarily who can speak eight languages like Benedict and John Paul II, but someone who can go onto that balcony and make an impression in front of the world's media and in front of the world's populations. They need someone who has a stage presence and someone who feels at home among crowds of people. Pope Benedict did not. We all know that, and Catholics respected that. He was a different kind of figure than John Paul II, but I think it handicapped Benedict in the sense that he really was unable to reach large groups of people who might have been interested in what he was saying."
On the challenges of covering a papal conclave as a reporter
"Cardinals are talking now. They're talking in generalities, of course. They're not naming names, and that's to be expected, I guess. Once they start meeting — which is probably going to be next week — they're going to be saying even less, and in a way it's a shame, because the conversations they're having are really extremely important about the future of the church, and the Catholic world is essentially shut out. Now, we did hear today from the Vatican spokesman, who hinted that reporters might actually be briefed on the content on some of these meetings, which would be a welcome change."
On communication within the Vatican
"I wasn't reporting too long at the Vatican before I realized that, when I would go to interview someone at a Vatican office, that after I was through with my questions they always had questions for me, and many of [the questions] concerned, 'What is another Vatican department doing?' And I soon realized that there really is little or no cross-communication inside the Vatican. It may seem amazing to outsiders, but the pope, for example, doesn't hold Cabinet meetings. He doesn't convene his top managers once a week or once a month or maybe even once a year and sit them down and say, 'We've got to be on the same page. What are the projects you're working on? Here's what I want to do. Let's makes sure we get our signals straight.' This generally does not happen, and probably a lot of people feel it's time that it does happen."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Pope Benedict XVI gave his last general audience to tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square today. Tomorrow he becomes the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign while in office. Though Benedict cited his age and health in announcing his resignation, his departure comes at a time of considerable turmoil in the church: the ongoing child sex abuse scandal, a money laundering investigation involving the Vatican Bank, and recent media reports of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct among ranking church officials.
For some perspective on the controversies and the papal succession, we turn to John Thavis, who covered the Vatican for almost 30 years for the Catholic News Service. Thavis now writes a blog on the church on his website, johnthavis.com, and he has a new book called "The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church." He spoke to me yesterday from Sylvia Poggioli's home studio in Rome.
John Thavis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Good to have you with us from Rome. It must be quite a time to be in Rome. What's it like?
JOHN THAVIS: It's amazing. It's unprecedented, and I would say most people around the Vatican, including journalists, are a little bit disoriented. Number one, the pope shocked them when he announced he was retiring, even though looking back you could see the signals. Number two, there have been new questions raised every day, and the answers haven't really been forthcoming very quickly.
It almost seems as if Benedict made his decision without necessarily scripting the entire process in advance and leaving his Vatican aides to kind of scramble for answers. But everyone here believes it's a historic-making moment, and no one here really knows what's going to happen next.
DAVIES: We'll get the process of selecting a new pope in a couple of moments, but I wanted to talk about some controversies that have arisen. A Rome newspaper ran a series of articles referring to a secret report prepared by three older cardinals in the Vatican, perhaps describing sexual improprieties and the existence of a gay faction that may have been subject to blackmail.
Now, I gather the Vatican has confirmed that a report of some kind has been prepared by three cardinals, right?
THAVIS: Right, this report was actually commissioned by the pope last year after the VatiLeaks case. I think the pope realized there's something wrong with the way the Roman Curae is operating if his own butler felt he had to photocopy documents on the side and slip them to a reporter.
So he asked three elderly cardinals to look into that and some other issues, some power struggles that have come out into the open here in the Vatican. And the cardinals dutifully interviewed people and made their report, handed it in to the pope in December. When the pope then announced his retirement two months later, I think Italian journalists in particular were quick to kind of draw the lines between the dots here and say oh, it must - there must have been something so shocking in that report that the pope threw his hands up in the air and said I quit.
I'm a little bit skeptical of these reports of a gay - it's called a gay subculture, a gay faction in the Vatican. Certainly there have been episodes over the last several years of where, for example, gay priests have been found out and in circumstances that were embarrassing for the Vatican. There was a Vatican official, for example, who was secretly videotaped in his Vatican office having a conversation with a young man, obviously a conversation with sexual overtones, and that film ended up airing on a major Italian TV show. Well the Vatican official was fired the next day.
There was another case of a papal usher, who appears at various Vatican ceremonies, who was caught on tape actually arranging encounters with gay prostitutes. And he was using a member of a Vatican choir to help make these arrangements. So those two people were immediately let go, as well.
So it's not that the subject is completely unknown at the Vatican, but the idea of a gay subculture, a gay faction that wields tremendous power inside the Vatican, I think is a bit of a stretch without some evidence. The problem here is that, you know, journalists are filling a vacuum here. It's an information vacuum. And because the Vatican reacts by, kind of, pulling the cloak of secrecy over the entire proceedings, and certainly on this report by the three cardinals, people can project whatever fantasies they want.
The pope actually met with these three cardinals yesterday and announced that he would not be making it public, not even to the cardinals coming to elect his successor, that he's going to basically put it in a drawer and leave it for only his successor. Now if I were a cardinal coming to Rome, I think I'd want to see what was in that report, just to put an end to the kind of rumors that I have been reading about in the newspapers.
DAVIES: So if we're not talking about a gay faction, a gay lobby within the Vatican, there's certainly other issues that the Vatican has been dealing with lately. One of them an unfolding investigation about money laundering that seems to have touched the Vatican Bank. Can you explain what that's about?
THAVIS: Well sure. The Vatican Bank, of course, was set up a long time ago, and it's a bank in a unique sense of the word. Its function is basically to help move funds to religious orders and Vatican-related charities around the world. But over the years, it's been used on some occasions by Italian bankers who were less than honest, and it's gotten itself involved in some murky dealings.
Now Pope Benedict actually tried to establish some transparency here. He was the first pope to set up an agency that oversaw all financial transactions in the Vatican. And I've seen the forms that people have to fill out. Anything over a certain amount of money - I think it's about 5,000 euros - you fill out a form, and you report to this agency.
And of course people at the Vatican Bank didn't like that. Even religious orders who did business at the Vatican Bank said, how can we deal with this, we're not used to being subject to these kind of regulations. Benedict tried to do this. There has been resistance at the Vatican Bank, and in fact to the point that last year the president of the Vatican Bank was fired - and rather publicly, which is unusual at the Vatican.
So I think that the pope has tried here, but he's been frustrated. And, you know, it's kind of like a lot of the other petty financial scandals that have come to light in some of the leaked documents over the last year or two. Most of them involve Italians who have sort of imported an Italian way of doing things into the Vatican. And I think that's one reason why one of his last acts of office was the appointment of a German head of the Vatican Bank. I think the pope hopes that this may help his successor.
DAVIES: What do you mean by Italian ways of doing things here?
THAVIS: You know, for an Italian business operation, perhaps awarding contracts to your friends in the industry is not an unusual thing. It shouldn't really be happening at the Vatican. And yet, apparently, it was, at least if we can believe a report made by an archbishop who worked in the governor's office of Vatican City.
In the Vatican, people get jobs by being (Italian spoken), right. They need somebody's connection to get the job. If you want a parking place, you need to go through these connections. Almost everything done at the Vatican is through connections. So when we talk about corruption, it's often this very petty kind of corruption that, as I say, is part of the process of living in Italy, and yet people are questioning should it be part of the process of operations at the Vatican.
DAVIES: Now one narrative I've seen in some accounts is that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertrone, who is the secretary of state for the Vatican...
THAVIS: Bertone, yes, Bertone.
DAVIES: Bertone, he's the secretary of state, I believe, that he in effect thwarted some of Pope Benedict's efforts to bring transparency and reform. Does that make sense to you?
THAVIS: You know, these so-called power struggles in the Vatican are so complex that not even the Italian journalists can track who's on whose side, who thwarted whom and who came out a winner. It's so intricate. Yes, Cardinal Bertone of course did some things that alienated people. For one thing, he's from Genoa, and he brought in a whole bunch of people from Genoa and gave them key jobs at the Vatican.
He's also a member of the Salesian religious order, and a whole series of other jobs went to Salesians. This apparently alienated people, made him some enemies, and he's been known to have kind of public spats with members of the Italian Bishops Conference. They feel that Cardinal Bertone wanted to speak for the Italian bishops and that the Vatican shouldn't be doing that.
It is hard to say exactly who's a winner, who's a loser, and who's on whose side, and even the Italians, as I say, kind of throw their hands up at this. And for cardinals who are coming in, you know, they must look at this and simply shake their heads. They know one thing: It's been very embarrassing for the pope and for the Catholic Church to have these power struggles come out into the open.
DAVIES: You mentioned the VatiLeaks scandal, and this was big news, I guess about a year and a half ago, when the - when Pope Benedict's personal butler was caught showing private papers to a newspaper reporter. He was ultimately imprisoned and then, I believe, pardoned by the pope, right?
THAVIS: That's right.
DAVIES: What did that tell us about what's going on in the Vatican, about the power struggles there, the level of corruption?
THAVIS: Well, the case of the butler still hasn't been solved in the eyes of many people. You know, it had to hurt Pope Benedict, I think we know that. And I'm sure it added to his burden and perhaps even to his decision to resign. Here was a man who was part of the papal household, which is the closest thing a pope has to a family.
He was the man who folded his clothes, packed his suitcase, served him meals; and he was going from that to photocopying confidential documents and leaking them to the press. It's hard to say whether this individual simply had some very strange ideas and was misguided. That seems to be the Vatican's version of what happened.
Other people say he was a pawn in somebody else's game. And during the trial, it was rather interesting to watch this unfold. You know, the Vatican was actually quite proud of the fact that it put the butler on trial, publicly, and invited journalists to watch and to witness this process. But when the butler was called to testify, we saw the presiding judge interrupt him repeatedly and cut him off whenever he wanted to talk about the deeper motives for doing what he was doing.
In other words, whenever he wanted to talk about protecting Benedict from lies and some kind of plots in the Vatican, the presiding judge simply said that's enough, and the butler never really had a chance to tell his side of the story.
Now this is not apparently unusual in Italian courtrooms. And the judge was acting much the same way an Italian judge might act, but it was unusual enough to the international press that people raised some eyebrows and said really, you know, they must still be hiding something.
So again, a case of where people were pushing for transparency in the Vatican, but it seemed to backfire.
DAVIES: Can you infer from Pope Benedict pardoning the butler, that he sees him as a whistle-blower?
THAVIS: No, I think that Benedict's pardon simply was a gesture of forgiveness to a man who had asked for forgiveness. The butler said he was sorry. He said he was very sorry that he damaged the pope's ministry and that he hurt the pope. And I think the pope's pardon simply said you're forgiven. I mean the man, after all, had spent many months in a Vatican jail cell already. So it wasn't as if he got off scot-free.
Now the Vatican is apparently prepared to offer him new employment, not in the pope's household, but at one of its hospitals that it runs in Rome. And it's been reported that one of the conditions of his employment, his future employment, will be that he remain quiet, that he not give interviews and talk to the press.
This has led some people to say, well, this is a gag order. Again, the Vatican is paying for his silence. Vatican officials see it a completely different way. They say number one, everybody who works at the Vatican takes a promise, makes a promise, to protect the secrecy of their office and anything about the pope. But number two, they say it wouldn't make sense if he's going to start making the round of talk shows that he also be working again at the Vatican.
But again it leaves questions hanging over this case. It leaves the question of what really was in this man's mind, and I don't think we have a clear idea yet.
DAVIES: You know, you've made the point in the book and in a lot of places that when so little information is provided, it invites speculation among journalists and others to fill in gaps. And, you know, one could look at these developments and see petty corruption, and, you know, you've said, you know, people get favors, jobs as favor, parking places, or you could - it could be that there's massive financial corruption, you know, waste in the millions; or people shaking down others for jobs, or promotions, or intimidating people or bribing people.
Do you have a feeling for how bad things are there?
THAVIS: Well, I'm not privy, of course, to the various financial misdoings that are going on, but I have followed some of them. You know, to me it was shocking to hear when an archbishop who really was a whistleblower in the Vatican City governor's office revealed that when he came to his job, he discovered that the Vatican was paying almost three-quarters of a million dollars every year to erect its nativity scene in St. Peter's Square. Obviously, an inflated contract.
And it shocked him, and it should've. I mean, three-quarters of a million dollars to celebrate the birth of the savior in a manger, that seems to go at cross-purposes to the church's message here. And so he reduced the amount of money being spent on that.
I think, probably, the corruption that goes on is of that level: the contracts are given to friends, the contracts are inflated. You know, I don't see anything that would probably come onto the radar of high officials because it's kept at a low level. And I think with the agency that Benedict set up, I think it's going to be much harder to do that kind of thing.
DAVIES: That archbishop who discovered that contract, that was Carlo Maria Vigano, right, and then he was transferred out of the Vatican then, wasn't he?
THAVIS: That's right. It was highly unusual. He actually wrote to the pope asking him to be left in his job so that he could continue to monitor these situations. And a little while later, he was sent to the United States as nuncio. I suppose one could look on it as an appointment, but one that he didn't want.
And there are questions raised about why that happened, about who had the pope's ear on that. But as of yet there are no clear answers.
DAVIES: But in any case, not a signpost of reform.
THAVIS: No, it's not a signpost that - it wasn't a signal that the pope or his top people were getting a message they wanted to hear. It sounded like, you know, what seemed to others like whistle-blowing sounded to them like the kind of complaining that they really did not want to listen to.
DAVIES: You know, the pope recently referred, in a speech, I think, to sins against the unity of the church that have disfigured the church. And this was seen by some as an admission on his part that these crises, these troubles within the church, might have led to his resignation. What - only he knows, but what is your sense of why he chose to take this extraordinary step of resigning?
THAVIS: Well, Benedict, of course, is very enigmatic. That's something I write about in my book. So he'll lay out a phrase like that, yes, divisions that have disfigured the church, and more or less allow people to interpret it at will. I think he was referring to some of these power struggles that have been evident in recent years.
And I think he was sending a signal that the next pope should come in and take care of this, at least address the problem. As for his motives, you know, unfortunately for Pope Benedict, it's his history of being second-guessed on his motives. I think, probably, we can take it at face value that he felt he simply did not have the energy to carry out the role of pope in the modern age.
Now what were the factors that went into this? They could be psychological factors, as well. They could be factors like he felt betrayed. There were factors, probably, that he was frustrated in some of his efforts, perhaps frustrated in his efforts to regulate financial reform inside the Vatican.
There are many frustrations in Benedict's career as pope that he probably feels quite deeply, because I think he's a sensitive man. He feels the hurt deeply when someone betrays him. And he feels the hurt deeply when he's criticized, I think. You remember the case of the Bishop Williamson, the traditionalist bishop, whose excommunication was lifted by Benedict, and he turned out to be a Holocaust denier.
The pope didn't know it at the time. He should have been told by his aides, and I'm sure he felt let down by his aides. But he also felt let down by the criticism of people in his own church. And he later wrote a document, an apostolic letter, saying how hurt he actually felt that Catholics themselves could criticize him for offending the Jews, because that was certainly not his intention, he said.
So here is a man who is extremely sensitive and who has met with frustration at so many turns. I think you certainly have to take this into account when describing the reasons that led him to resign.
DAVIES: John Thavis covered the Vatican for 30 years. His new book is called "The Vatican Diaries." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who is off this week. We're speaking with Vatican correspondent John Thavis, who is in Rome at an eventful time. Pope Benedict XVI gave his last general audience to tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square today. And tomorrow, he'll assume the title Roman Pontiff Emeritus, becoming the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign from office.
The church has faced controversy at recent years involving the child sex abuse scandal, financial irregularities and recent reports of sexual misconduct among church officials. Cardinals are now assembling in Rome to select the next pope.
John Thavis the Vatican for 30 years for the Catholic News Service. He has a new book called "The Vatican Diaries."
Well, let's talk a little bit about the selection of the next pope. One hundred seventeen cardinals will assemble in March, right?
THAVIS: Well, I think we're down to 115 now.
DAVIES: Ah, a couple...
THAVIS: Cardinal O'Brien, as we know, from Scotland, has bowed out in a very public way after being accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. There may be one or two other cardinals who are simply not well enough to come. I think we're going to be looking at 114 or 115.
DAVIES: And while we're at it, we might mention U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who - the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, who had some limits placed on his public role in his diocese for essentially failing to protect children in the - from clergy sex abuse. What will be his status? He has announced he wants to come, right?
THAVIS: He's in Rome. He's already in Rome and he fully intends to participate in the conclave. And, of course, that raises problems here, because yes, he is going to be a media distraction. He's going to make sure that reporters will be following him around, and if they can't find him, they're going to be asking all the other cardinals, do you think Cardinal Mahoney should be here? And it is an issue. You know, I think the Vatican might have been pleased, actually, had Cardinal Mahoney decided, quietly, on his own, to stay home. But as soon as it became a public issue and a matter of public pressure, you know, the thinking at the Vatican is well, now he can't stay home because it would look like he would be bowing to public pressure. It is odd to think that a cardinal who basically has been told, keep out of the public eye in your own archdiocese because you failed to protect children, can simply hop on a plane and come to Rome and join, you know, the world's most exclusive club in electing a new pope.
DAVIES: Could the pope exclude him?
THAVIS: Well, there is - it depends on who you ask. I've asked that question many times around here and some people say no, because there is a traditional right of any cardinal - not only a right, but a duty of any cardinal - to come to Rome to vote in a conclave. And in history there have been efforts, of course, by popes to exclude cardinals in one way or another, and that's why this tradition is so strong. Nothing can exclude you from coming and exercising your right to vote. On the other hand, practically speaking, people have told me look, if the pope calls up Cardinal Mahoney and says please stay home, he would have. But apparently, that didn't happen because, as I say, Cardinal Mahoney's already in Rome ready to enter into the conclave.
DAVIES: Now the conclave is not a representative assembly of the church. How well do its members reflect the geographic makeup of the Catholic Church?
THAVIS: Well, the conclave is - it will be about 114, 115 cardinals. They are predominantly European. More than half the cardinal electors are from Europe. So, you know, it's completely Eurocentric and that really hasn't changed over the last 30 or 40 years. Pope Benedict, in fact, appointed even more Europeans to the College of Cardinals. It is very heavy on the side of Italy. Italy has 28 voters in this conclave, which is far more than it had in the last conclave in 2005. There are relatively few cardinals from Latin America, Asia and Africa. In fact, you know, Italy has more cardinal electors than Asia and Africa combined, which is incredible when you think about it.
DAVIES: Right. And the majority of the world's Catholics actually live in Latin America and Africa, right?
THAVIS: Absolutely. The geographical center of the church has swung toward the south and Latin America, Asia, Africa. And the only place where real numbers of Catholics are in decline is in Europe, which, as we see, still holds a majority when it comes to electing a pope. You know, so by the numbers, no. The cardinal - the College of Cardinals is not representative at all. And there are, I'm sure, people who would like to do something about that, but the argument is always that well, number one, the church is not a democracy, the College of Cardinals is not a parliament, a papal election is not like a presidential election. And the Holy Spirit is at work, so perhaps he'll cast the votes that make some change happen.
It will be interesting to see who comes out on the balcony after this election. You know, if the cardinals do go to a non-European, it will take some courage, I think, and it will mean that they have looked beyond their own geographical boundaries, which would be a good thing.
DAVIES: What are some of the other issues that the cardinals may consider? I mean obviously there are personalities here, but will they be looking, for example, for a younger pope, or one more traditional or less traditional?
THAVIS: Well, the cardinals are all pretty conservative. They were all appointed by either Benedict or John Paul II. And you're not going to find too many cardinals in that group who are ready to kind of stake out brand-new ground for the church or new positions or radical changes. I think the priorities for the cardinals are going to be important, though. It's going to be important what they say in the conversations leading up to the vote inside the conclave. I'm sure one of those priorities will be some kind of management, closer management, of the Roman Curia. And that has led to the idea that the cardinals will be looking for a CEO type, someone who has the strength, not only of personality, but the clear ideas and the ability to bring in new people to manage the Roman Curia in a way that hasn't been done over the last several years.
I think the cardinals will also be looking for someone who is a great communicator. They need someone, not necessarily who can speak eight languages like Benedict and John Paul II, but someone who can go onto that balcony and make an impression in front of the world's media and in front of the world's populations. They need someone who has a stage presence, and someone who feels at home among crowds of people. Pope Benedict did not, and we all know that and Catholics respected that. He was a different kind of figure than John Paul II. But I think it handicapped Benedict in the sense that he really was unable to reach large groups of people who might have been interested in what he was saying. He was seen as an academic, a very retiring and shy person. And I think the cardinals are going to be looking for someone who can express what the church has to say in an inviting and very attractive way, and in a way that will be listened to.
And I think a third qualification will be - I think this next pope has to have a clean track record on sex abuse. I don't think the cardinals are going to risk electing someone who has been criticized for his handling of cases of priests in his own archdiocese.
DAVIES: You know, if this were a political convention in the States, you'd have all kinds of people to talk to. I'm wondering, as a reporter, how do you cover this? Will you get cardinals to talk to you off the record, quietly?
THAVIS: Yes. Cardinals will talk to you now, until they're told not to. Last time this happened it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who was running the meetings before the cardinals entered into conclave. And he actually said on several occasions, please do not give interviews. Well, fortunately not everyone followed that order and we still got some information back then. Cardinals are talking now. They're talking in generalities, of course; they're not naming names and that's to be expected, I guess. Once they start meeting, which is probably going to be next week, they're going to be saying even less. And, you know, it's - in a way it's a shame, because the conversations they're having are really extremely important about the future of the church and the Catholic world is essentially shut out.
Now, we did hear today from the Vatican spokesman who hinted that reporters might actually be briefed on the content of some of these meetings, which would be a welcome change. And, you know, I guess I should also point out that there are people inside the Vatican working for transparency. They're working for making more information available. And I think they realize that, if the cardinals simply go behind closed doors, that there's no real communication with the outside world, that number one, you're going to get even more speculation from journalists. And number two, Catholics, in the end, are going to feel shut out.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're speaking with John Thavis. He is a veteran correspondent at the Vatican. He has a new book called "The Vatican Diaries."
You know, it's fascinating in your book that one of the things you talk about is that people view the Vatican as closed and hierarchical and coldly efficient. You have a really very different take on it, don't you?
THAVIS: I do. I do. And that comes from covering the place for 30 years and seeing it from the inside. You know, the public's image of the Vatican is - there's a lot of myth to it. You know, this idea that the orders come from on high and they're carried out right down the line, it rarely works that way. What we often leave out of our news stories, as reporters, is the context and the backstory of how a decision came to be made. And, you know, part of that context is that decision-making at the Vatican is less organized, it's less hierarchical. It's much more based on individual personalities than the public imagines.
You know, you can take many examples, but just one example, the process of declaring someone a saint, which I do treat in my book in the case of Pope Pius XII. It is not just some sterile process, but it's driven by personalities who work very hard behind the scenes. And in this case, I draw personality profiles of three of these people, a German Jesuit, an American nun and a Jewish activist. And these are the kinds of things that people never get to know, reading news stories. It's what I call the backstage reality at the Vatican. And as a journalist, I found that most of the time we journalists are happy to be kind of on the audience side of the curtain here. We rarely go poking around backstage. And so really, that's what I wanted to do in my book, is go backstage, talk about what it's like to be for example, the bell ringer at a conclave and what you do when the orders are confused. Or what it's like to be the papal gentlemen who escort the presidents and kings to see the pope and all of the strange and very funny things that actually do happen.
DAVIES: There are what, like 3,000 employees there or something like that? I mean you...
THAVIS: Right, about 3,000. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: You write that reporters are in some respect a necessary pollinating agent in spreading information. What do you mean?
THAVIS: Exactly. Well, it wasn't, I wasn't reporting too long at the Vatican before I realized that when I would go to interview someone in a Vatican office, that after I was through with my questions they always had questions for me. And many of them concerned what is another Vatican department doing? And I soon realized that there really is little or no cross-communication inside the Vatican. It may seem amazing to outsiders, but the pope, for example, doesn't hold cabinet meetings. He doesn't convene his top managers once a week, or once a month or maybe even once a year, and sit them down and say, we have to be on the same page. What are the projects you're working on? Here's what I want to do. Let's make sure we get our signals straight. This generally does not happen. And I think probably a lot of people feel it's time that it does happen.
DAVIES: One thing that will be new to the Vatican is having a retired pope still around. Does that present issues?
THAVIS: Yes, it does raise many, many questions. What is the role of a retired pope? No one really knows. Because although Pope Benedict has said he plans to go into hiding, in a sense, and we all know he's going to live inside the Vatican so it's not like you can go and ring his doorbell. Still, he may be writing. His brother has suggested that his successor may want to turn to the retired pope for advice. And immediately, that raises questions. Well, what if the pope, the retired pope's advice, is not followed? What if he writes something that perhaps goes in a different direction than the church is going under the new pope?
I'm sure that Pope Benedict, the last thing he wants to do is interfere with the work of his successor. And I think if you could pick one person who will be discreet and you can count on not to embarrass the next pope, it would be Benedict. However, there are no real rules here. If Benedict decides one day I want to go out of the Vatican, he's free to do so.
And the next pope who retires will be in the same situation. They can kind of write their own job descriptions as retired popes.
DAVIES: You can't have two people whose word is infallible, right?
THAVIS: Well, no. And of course, once he leaves the office of pope, that really is not a question. It's not a question of whether the pope would write something that would have some other authority. Anything the pope writes from the day of his retirement on will be as a private person. Still, you could imagine a situation where there might be divided loyalties. People who pay more attention to the retired pope than they do to a new pope. You know, what if a new pope is unpopular? What if the retired pope had always been more popular? You can imagine all kind of scenarios. You know, I don't want to over-imagine disasters happening because they probably won't, certainly with Pope Benedict. I think we can count on him on keeping a low profile.
DAVIES: Well, John Thavis, thanks so much for speaking with us.
THAVIS: Well, I'm very happy to have joined you.
DAVIES: John Thavis covered the Vatican for 30 years. His new book is called "The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.