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Vatican intrigue and politics (Opinion)

Inevitably, age undermines everyone’s health, but the secrecy and uncommonly deft handling of Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement to leave the papacy suggest political factors also took their toll. Only a handful in Benedict’s inner circle knew of the decision in advance.

On ABC’s TODAY program, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, said he learned about the resignation this morning. He told host Matt Lauer, “I’m as startled as the rest of you and as anxious to find out exactly what’s going on.” It’s a surprising admission for such a high-ranking church official, especially since he’ll be burdened with helping to select Benedict XVI’s successor.

Similarly, the Chicago Tribune reported Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had just returned from Rome. According to a spokesperson he “was just as surprised as she was and [he] would release a statement later today.”

Andrew Brown of The Guardian in the United Kingdom reported, “Pope Benedict's resignation has been planned for some time – Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, knew about it before Christmas.” An astute Vatican watcher suggested to me Brown may have erred and meant Williams suspected, but didn’t know.

If Brown is correct, it means a Protestant was aware of the pope's plans before some of the most influential Catholic leaders in North America. This would be extraordinary news. Assuming Brown did get his facts wrong, it is still stunning how few knew about the decision before the pope made the announcement.

Although Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, may have lived a sheltered life, explaining in part his anxiety and hostility to a changing world that moved beyond him, he wasn’t naïve. Yet as a very conservative scholar, theologian, and intellectual, he no doubt found the managerial necessities of running the monolithic Vatican bureaucracy painful, potentially creating a power vacuum enabling personal rivalries among bishops and cardinals to surface, rivalries normally kept in check by a strong administrative hand.

In January 2012, the “Vatileaks” scandal rocked the Catholic Church and brought renewed calls for Vatican transparency. Italian television aired an investigative report on financial corruption within the papacy. Charges of sex scandals, money laundering, purchasing papal access, and embarrassing leaked documents from Benedict’s personal butler made their way into the headlines.

Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi published “His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI,” based partly on stolen information, documents several scandals and paints a cloak and dagger portrait of rivalry and intrigue. Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, received an 18-month prison term for providing Nuzzi stolen information, but Benedict pardoned him. Gabriele appears to have been a pawn in a much larger Vatican chess game.

The Vatican, though built on Christian principles to love more, judge less and focus on the spiritual rewards of the next life, is still an institution run by men where the secular pursuits of sex, greed, power, and pettiness toward sisters and brothers are a reality. This was not Benedict’s world.

Catholicism has survived, as have other Christian denominations, despite the misdeeds of human beings in positions of influence and authority, especially in this case by those who failed to serve their pope with the same dignity Benedict brought to the papacy. Officially, health remains the only reason why Benedict is stepping down. Yet, it’s difficult not to suspect there’s more going on behind the scenes.

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Paul Jesep is author ofCrucifying Jesus and Secularizing America – the Republic of Faith without Wisdom”; “Credit Card Usury and the Christian Failure to Stop It” and Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically