Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil arrives to celebrate Mass at the… (Andrew Medichini / Associated…)
VATICAN CITY — Roman Catholic cardinals gathering here to elect the next pope have focused with unusual intensity on the management of the Vatican, which by almost all accounts is deeply dysfunctional — and at worst may have permitted criminal behavior.
The cardinals' assessment of the inner workings of the Vatican could figure prominently in whom they choose to replace Pope Benedict XVI, church officials and analysts say. The debate also goes a long way in explaining why it took so long to convene the conclave, the secretive meeting inside the Sistine Chapel where 115 cardinals will vote for pope. The conclave begins Tuesday.
The power of the Curia, as the 4,000-employee Vatican bureaucracy is known, is legendary. Traditionally, a cardinal who was a member of the Curia, which is to say held a senior post in the Vatican, has had an edge as a candidate to be pope, or at the least the ability to be a kingmaker.
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But in this papal transition, which has already broken a number of the centuries-old rules, a searing air of questioning has emerged. It is no longer clear that coming from the Curia helps one's ambitions; in fact, it could prove a liability.
Cardinals met Monday in the last of a series of pre-conclave discussions. Twenty-eight signed up to address their colleagues in the morning session and several were waiting to speak at the end of the session. But the cardinals decided not to extend the discussion.
Based on the sometimes coded public statements of several cardinals, one of the main lines dividing cardinals involves the demand for a shake-up of the Curia. The division pits many of the prelates not based in Rome against those who for years have toiled within the bureaucracy.
Many cardinals have said they want in their pope a stronger administrator who is attuned to the pressing issues that dog the church and who can address corruption and mismanagement. Benedict, while a brilliant theologian, was not sharp on the nuts and bolts of running the Vatican, tasks he left to his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, widely seen as petty and incompetent.
"There is no doubt that today there needs to be renewal in the church, reform in the church and especially of government; how is this next pope going to govern the church?" said British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who is not voting in the conclave. "There have been troubles in recent years, and scandals. Well, this has got to be addressed, and especially the pope's own house has to be put in order."
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Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, who will be voting in the conclave, agreed. "The Curia … must be revolutionized," he told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. "We need a new model of governance in the church. Reforming the Curia is a priority. It is a huge problem."
Like many of the so-called reformers within the church, Kasper advocated "collegiality," which means, among other things, a greater voice for bishops outside Rome.
Keen to protect their power, prelates in the Curia have resisted change and sought to downplay criticism of Vatican management.
The problems corroding the inner workings of the Vatican administration exploded into full view last year with a torrent of leaks of private Curia correspondence and other confidential documents, many straight from Benedict's desk.
His personal butler eventually pleaded guilty to having smuggled the material to an Italian journalist who published them in a bestselling book. Revelations portrayed a bureaucracy riven by infighting, corruption and jealousies.
The portrait revealed the extent to which church officials were getting involved in for-profit business opportunities throughout Italy and how negligence had allowed the Vatican bank to run amok and possibly engage in money laundering. In addition, some of the documents accused senior church officials of illegally rigging contracts for public works in the Vatican city-state.
Much of the blame for the mishandling of Vatican affairs has fallen on Bertone — many of the questions concerning the leaks have centered on Bertone's archrival within the Curia, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. (The two also competed for the primary role in the post-Benedict handling of the church during this period known as the Sede Vacante, the empty chair.)
At the cardinals' session Monday, Bertone addressed attempts to bring more transparency to the workings of the Vatican bank, according to the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
Like secular Italian politicians, Bertone is accused of using his position as Benedict's right-hand man to fill Curia posts with supporters and zealously restrict access to the pope. He made himself a gatekeeper who frequently turned away visiting bishops hoping to see the pontiff, church insiders say.