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'Behind The Scenes' At The Vatican: The Politics Of Picking A New Pope

The years of his papacy had seen "moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments," Pope Benedict XVI told some 100,000 spectators gathered in St. Peter's Square Wednesday during his final address. "There have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us ... and the Lord seemed to sleep."

As Benedict becomes the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years and cardinals gather in Rome to choose his successor, a series of scandals — child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents — has left the Vatican reeling.

"It's amazing. It's unprecedented," veteran Vatican reporter John Thavis tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I would say most people around the Vatican, including journalists, are a little bit disoriented. Number one, the pope shocked them when he announced he was retiring. ... Number two, there have been new questions every day, and answers haven't really been forthcoming very quickly. It almost seems as if Benedict made his decision without necessarily scripting the entire process in advance and leaving his Vatican aides to scramble for answers. ... [E]veryone here believes it's a historic-making moment, and no one here really knows what's going to happen next."

Thavis, who covered the Vatican for nearly 30 years for the Catholic News Service, is the author of the newly published The Vatican Diaries. The book is a collection of accounts of doctrinal disputes, power struggles and personal scandals, in which everyone from diplomats to ushers share information and gossip.

"[D]ecision-making at the Vatican is less organized, is less hierarchical," Thavis says. "It's much more based on individual personalities than the public imagines."

Interview Highlights

On his own thoughts on why Benedict resigned

"Benedict of course is very enigmatic. ... He'll lay out a phrase like ... 'divisions that have disfigured the church' and more or less allow people to interpret it at will. I think he was referring to some of these power struggles that have been evident in recent years, and I think he was sending a signal that the next pope should come in and take care of this, at least address the problem. As for his motives, unfortunately for Pope Benedict, it's his history of being second-guessed on his motives. I think probably we can take it at face value that he felt he simply did not have the energy to carry out the role of pope in the modern age. ... There are many frustrations in Benedict's career as pope that he probably feels quite deeply because, I think, he's a sensitive man. He feels the hurt deeply when someone betrays him, and he feels the hurt deeply when he's criticized."

John Thavis is the Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service.
Nancy Wiechec / Viking/Penguin Group
Viking/Penguin Group
John Thavis is the Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service.

On the "Italian way" of doing things at the Vatican

"For an Italian business operation, perhaps awarding contracts to your friends in the industry is not an unusual thing. It shouldn't really be happening at the Vatican. ... In the Vatican, people get jobs by being recommandato, right? They need somebody's connection to get the job. If you want a parking place, you need to go through these connections. Almost everything done at the Vatican is through connections. So when we talk about corruption, it's often this very petty kind of corruption that, as I say, is part of the process of living in Italy. And yet people are questioning, 'Should it be part of the process of operations at the Vatican?' "

On what the cardinals will be looking for when they choose the next pope

"The cardinals are all pretty conservative ... and you're not going to find too many cardinals in that group who are ready to stake out brand new ground for the church or new positions or radical changes. ... I'm sure one of those priorities will be some kind of closer management of the Roman curia, and that has led to the idea that the cardinals will be looking for a CEO type. ... I think the cardinals will also be looking for someone who is a great communicator. They need someone not necessarily who can speak eight languages like Benedict and John Paul II, but someone who can go onto that balcony and make an impression in front of the world's media and in front of the world's populations. They need someone who has a stage presence and someone who feels at home among crowds of people. Pope Benedict did not. We all know that, and Catholics respected that. He was a different kind of figure than John Paul II, but I think it handicapped Benedict in the sense that he really was unable to reach large groups of people who might have been interested in what he was saying."

On the challenges of covering a papal conclave as a reporter

"Cardinals are talking now. They're talking in generalities, of course. They're not naming names, and that's to be expected, I guess. Once they start meeting — which is probably going to be next week — they're going to be saying even less, and in a way it's a shame, because the conversations they're having are really extremely important about the future of the church, and the Catholic world is essentially shut out. Now, we did hear today from the Vatican spokesman, who hinted that reporters might actually be briefed on the content on some of these meetings, which would be a welcome change."

On communication within the Vatican

"I wasn't reporting too long at the Vatican before I realized that, when I would go to interview someone at a Vatican office, that after I was through with my questions they always had questions for me, and many of [the questions] concerned, 'What is another Vatican department doing?' And I soon realized that there really is little or no cross-communication inside the Vatican. It may seem amazing to outsiders, but the pope, for example, doesn't hold Cabinet meetings. He doesn't convene his top managers once a week or once a month or maybe even once a year and sit them down and say, 'We've got to be on the same page. What are the projects you're working on? Here's what I want to do. Let's makes sure we get our signals straight.' This generally does not happen, and probably a lot of people feel it's time that it does happen."

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