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A crazy book on a serious subject


By I Millenari
Kaos Edizioni, 297 pages


Via col Vento in Vaticano (Gone With the Wind in the Vatican) is the crazy name of a crazy book that has upset high-level members of the Roman curia. Issued in Milan last February by a small publisher (self-described as “lay and anticlerical”), it went almost unnoticed until the Tribunal of the Sacred Rota, the Vatican’s top court, did something it had never done before. It demanded the destruction of all copies and initiated a legal action for defamation and slander against a 72-year-old retired bishop, Luigi Marinelli. The book had appeared under the pseudonym of I Millenari (the millenarians), a reshuffling of the letters of Marinelli.

Those who share the belief of the 12th-century St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the 16th-century Martin Luther, and such 20th-century church leaders as Cardinals Josef Frings and Leo Suenens, that the curia needs to be radically reformed, will find little of substance here to confirm their view. There is plenty of dirt, indeed, but little proof. What we have is a rehash of old gossip, a rambling, repetitious diatribe of the kind one finds in the scandal sheets at supermarket checkout counters. The cause of curial reform deserves better.

Marinelli, who worked for 20 years in the Congregation for Oriental Churches and who now lives in an apartment overlooking St. Peter’s, has told the press that he is but one of several authors. He cannot comply with the Rota’s demand to repudiate the book, he insists, because everything it says “is true.”

The substantive charges are four: careerism, secretive selection of bishops, presence of a Masonic network within the curia that promotes movements and activities harmful to religion, and the absence of a trade union for curial employees.

The enormous news coverage in Italy that followed the Vatican’s move to suppress the book focused primarily on undocumented incidents scattered throughout the text. We hear of homosexual encounters camouflaged as “working suppers,” even a prelate who boasts he has taken “a vow of homosexuality so that he would not sin by chasing after women.” A womanizing cardinal’s weaknesses are forgotten when he contributes half a million dollars to Solidarnosc, the Polish freedom movement. An unnamed priest, waving Vatican extraterritoriality, tries to smuggle a suitcase full of cash into Switzerland. Stalin sent thousands of young men into seminaries, many of whom may now be agents of atheism as high-level curial officials.

Perhaps the most negative aspect of the book is that it has no suggestions for improving the curia. The authors seem to be prisoners of the system they are criticizing. They visualize reform as merely putting the existing structures in order so that they will work smoothly. They do not even seem to think of the curia as a service for the people of God but simply as a self-serving and self-justifying entity.

Neither do they exhibit any sympathy for the updating of the church promoted by John XXIII and Vatican II.

They deplore at length, for example, the liturgical reforms that followed the Vatican Council as ending the mystery of worship, turning it into coffee-shop chatter and stepping on “the accelerator of secularization.” They criticize the Synod of Bishops as “tending to limit papal power as much as possible.” Theological accuracy is apparently not their strong point: They tell us that the pope is the head of the church.

In spite of all these defects, it may well be that Via col Vento is positively promoting the reform of the curia that the Vatican Council explicitly called for in its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops. It is hardly coincidental that, in the months since its publication, high church officials have publicly repeated some of its complaints.

Cardinal Vincenzo Fagiolo, for example, roundly denounced rampant careerism in the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano last March 27 (NCR, May 28). Calling for an end to “the idea of promotion or transfer” when a bishop is named to a diocese or Vatican congregation, he wrote: “A bishop is not an official, a dignitary, a passing bureaucrat making ready for a more prestigious post.” Speaking at a Rome university about the same time, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, agreed. The “natural place” of a bishop is at the head of one diocese, he said. “The episcopacy cannot be the coronation of a career.”

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, former prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, echoed these sentiments in the April issue of the important magazine Treinta Giorni. “A diocese is not a civil administration but is part of the reality of the church’s mystery,” he stated in a lengthy interview. “A bishop, once appointed to a see, must -- in general and in principle -- remain there always. ... A new bishop must not make other personal plans. ... He cannot say: `I’ll be here for two or three more years, and then I’ll be promoted because of my skills, my talents, my gifts.’ ”

Also in Treinta Giorni, two months later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, returned to the issue (NCR, July 30). Referring to the traditional comparison of the bishop’s relationship to his diocese to that of a husband to his wife, he expressed regret that he had moved from his diocese of Munich-Freising in Germany to the curia. “Sadly, I myself have not remained faithful in this regard.”

Secrecy about the curia extends even to its membership. Pope John XXIII reputedly answered when asked how many worked at the curia: “About half.” Reacting to criticisms of the institution expressed at the council, the Vatican in October 1965, in an unprecedented public relations gesture, authorized Italian journalist Alberto Cavallari to interview heads of departments. He placed the total staff at 500. Archbishop John R. Quinn, in his in-depth study of the papacy in a lecture at Oxford University in June 1996, put the figure at “some 3,000 working in an array of secretariats, congregations and tribunals (NCR, July 12, 1996).”

In that lecture Archbishop Quinn made several points about the curia that the authors of Via col Vento could have profitably incorporated. Referring to Pope John Paul II’s efforts to promote Christian unity, he said that the biggest obstacle from the point of view of the Orthodox and other Christians is neither doctrinal differences nor historical experiences but “precisely the way issues are dealt with by the curia.” Many within the church, he continued, share the same opinion. They resent the way decisions are reached and implemented “without consultation with the episcopate and without appropriate dialogue.” As a specific example of the curia’s objectionable procedures, Quinn listed the appointment of bishops “against an overwhelming objection of people and priests in a given diocese.”

Not surprisingly, the Vatican’s attempts to suppress the book have given it a readership beyond anything its publisher could have anticipated. With the original 7,000 copies exhausted, a rerun of at least 50,000 has been ordered. German and English translations are expected to be on the market in time for Christmas.

Gary MacEoin may be reached at gmaceoin@cs.com. He is author of What Happened at Rome: A History of Vatican II, and coauthor with Francis X. Murphy of Synod ’67: A New Sound in Rome.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999