For many close observers of the church, the tall, lanky and polarizing prelate represents the dysfunction in the Roman hierarchy and the dangers of over-staffing the universal church’s government with too many Italians.
Benedict’s last year in office was overshadowed by leaks exposing Italian prelates engaging in turf wars and battles to influence the Italian government. Even as Benedict’s helicopter, emblazoned with the words “Repubblica Italiana,” lifted over the Vatican walls and spirited him away to a hidden life of retirement, an Italian magazine reported that in the midst of the leak scandal, Bertone had authorized wiretaps, that most Italian of pastimes, to root out potential moles among clergy in the Vatican. The Holy See confirmed that it had ordered the bugging of some phones.
The very notion that Italy is a contagion marks a historical departure. For 455 years before the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, an uninterrupted chain of Italian popes led the church. Now the scandals that haunted the German Benedict also loom over Italian candidates hoping to reclaim the papacy.
As cardinals begin meeting on Monday before entering the conclave from which the next pope will emerge, the 28 voting Italians will once again be the largest group from any one country. (The United States follows with 11 cardinals.) But the college of cardinals will also discuss the great challenges facing the church, and one of them is the crisis of management in the Vatican.
While there is near consensus that bad governance has hobbled the church, there is far less consensus about how to fix it. Would another Italian pope contaminated by Italy’s political culture exacerbate the problem? Or can only an Italian pope steeped in his country’s brand of political maneuvering mend the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church?
Several of the top candidates remain Italian, including Milan’s archbishop Angelo Scola and, a longer shot, Genoa’s archbishop Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops conference and Bertone’s nemesis. Both men lead a major diocese, unlike the Italians who work as top officials in the Curia.
“It’s improbable that there would be an Italian pope from the Curia,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert with the Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso.
Bertone, who led that bureaucracy, has become a shorthand for its Italian squabbling and flaws. While Benedict singled him out for appreciation in his farewell address, cardinals had requested his resignation even before the papal correspondence scandal known as VatiLeaks. In that departing headache for Benedict, potentially strategic leaks cast Bertone, 78, as the Vatican’s resident heavy who exiled a fledgling reformer and supported the public smearing of a Bagnasco ally as gay.