Vatican City: gospel truth?

June 23, 2012

Vatican City was always going to be a challenge. With an area of 0.2 sq miles and fewer than 900 citizens, it is the world’s smallest independent state. It’s also one of the most unusual – Vatican City nationals are made, not born (hardly surprising, given that the majority of its residents, barring a few Swiss Guards, are Roman Catholic priests) and the state is thought to be the only country in the world where you can take out money from a cash machine by following instructions in Latin.

All this made getting a novel, short story collection or memoir out of the place look doubtful. I was beginning to think I was going to have to resort to a papal bull just for the sake of having something to read.

Then I google-stumbled (gumbled – I think this should be a word) across an intriguing-sounding book called Gone with the Wind in the Vatican or Shroud of Secrecy, as my edition has it. Claiming to be the first treatise of written protest from within the Church since Martin Luther’s theses in 1517, the book is a sort of collective memoir-cum-exposé published by an anonymous group of Vatican prelates, calling themselves the Millenari, in Italy in 1999.

One of the group, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli (whose anagrammatic last name makes you wonder quite how many other people were in the Millenari), has since acknowledged his involvement in the book’s production. He has been investigated by the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s court, which also sought to recall the book from Italy and restrict its publication in translation – a controversial move, given that Italy is a separate sovereign state. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Right from the start (in the subtitle, in fact), the book sets out its mission to tell ‘the story of corruption within the Vatican’ and propose measures to help the secretive and hierarchical institution ‘cleanse what has become a festering wound’. It then proceeds to allege that almost every kind of malpractice and intrigue – blackmail, fraud, sexual favours, masonic links, spying, drug abuse, and even Satanic rituals – is rife among the elite clergy at the top of the Holy See, leaving those who want to advance their careers no option but to play the same game.

Crucially, unlike many works that criticise the Church, the book is written from a standpoint of belief both in Christian theology and in the potential of the institution. In fact, the authors go out of their way to demonstrate their faith, larding the text with quotations from scripture and even likening themselves to biblical prophets. At times, this repeated self-justification takes on a panicky air – although this is perhaps not surprising when you consider the power of the institution they are up against.

The most compelling passages of the book centre on the descriptions of the mechanisms within the ‘dictatorship’ of the Holy See and the way ‘the diplomacy of the Vatican immediately influences any states with which it has diplomatic ties’. At times cynical and sardonic, the narrative voice cites numerous instances of favouritism and petty rivalries advancing the careers of unsuitable (and often unqualified) candidates and blighting the prospects of deserving clergy. Perhaps most chilling of all are the allegations surrounding the way those high up in the hierarchy control and manipulate the Pope for their own ends:

‘To create a power vacuum at the top, they encourage the Pope to immerse himself in apostolic visits. [...] Once back in Rome, bewildered and dazed by the rush of the crowd, ears still ringing with delirious hosannas, it is virtually impossible for the Pope to discover the intrigues of the court. [...] When the Pope returns, steeped in glory, he is too tired and distracted to notice the insidious conspiracies hidden in the documents he signs. Everyone drafting the documents knows that the aging Pope won’t absorb the notes on the report.’

Perhaps because this is ‘a book of many voices’, the tone of much of the work is inconsistent, veering between the declamatory, the technical and the downright sensational. While some of the instances cited involve names and verifiable information, many of the anecdotes included are anonymous, and written more in the tone of salacious gossip than hard fact, so much so that I found myself wondering whether the writers’ assertions about favouritism said more about their frustrated hopes for their own careers than about the mechanisms themselves. There are also numerous references to miracles and revelations that non-Catholics will find hard to credit.

Nevertheless, as a window into a closed and mysterious world, this is a fascinating book. Accurate or not, it is also clearly a very brave work. No doubt it’s one of the more unusual texts I’ll encounter this year.

Shroud of Secrecy: The story of corruption within the Vatican (Via col vento in Vaticano) by The Millenari, translated from the Italian by Ian Martin (Key Porter Books, 2000)

4 Responses to “Vatican City: gospel truth?”

  1. You are taking the ‘reading the world’ obviously extremely seriously, if you are even including Vatican City as a country (a country of immigrants, as you so rightly put it). And I see you are also including other micro-countries like San Marino and Monaco. Would be very interested to see what you can find there! Are you also thinking of including books written in minority languages (Basque in Spain or Rumantsch in Switzerland or Breton and Occitan in France)? Or does that make things too complicated?

    • Thanks – I’m doing all the UN members/ recognised countries plus Taiwan and Palestine (both of which have had a degree of UN recognition in their histories). In terms of minority languages, if the texts I get are in translation from these that would be a bonus, but with 196 countries to get round in a year it may be a case of settling for what I can get! Do let me know if you have any minority language recommendations…

  2. Fascinating. But even more so: what (cake) leavings are on the plate next to your ever-growing pile? I’m voting for Lemon Drizzle, but could be just a home-made sponge with a sticky bottom*.

    *unintentionally smutty-sounding

    • Right second time. It was billed as a Victoria sponge (see pictures on previous posts for diminishing cake), but this caused some controversy as it contained cream and pear and vanilla butter instead of the traditional raspberry jam…

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