When you have been granted an audience with the pope at the Vatican, you are given a time for arrival, which is more than an hour before the meeting will take place.
Footmen in centuries-old uniforms escort you to a waiting room where you sit for 15 minutes.
Then another uniformed (costumed?) host leads you into a second waiting room for another wait.
And so it goes through a third, a fourth and a fifth room, each looking exactly like what it is, an anteroom in a medieval palace.
The whole impact of this pageantry reinforces the mystique and power of the papacy. You understand you are not just meeting with a powerful church leader, but with the supreme caretaker of an immensely powerful and ancient institution.
And this was my impression on my visit with Pope John Paul II in November 1987 for the signing of a revised agreement between the United Bible Societies and the Roman Catholic Church on principles to follow in interconfessional Bible translation, that is, translations prepared by Roman Catholics, Protestants and other church groups and denominations working together. As coordinator of our global translation program, I had been heavily involved in negotiating the document.
The power of the papacy is a major part of the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church today, problems which Pope Benedict XVI finds himself incapable of managing anymore. The more powerful and wealthy an institution, the more power struggles emerge, the more factions develop, and the more corruption creeps in, and, in recent times, takes over.
Two years ago investigators impounded $30 million from the Vatican Bank in an investigation of money laundering charges. The fallout from that continues.
The Pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested for having stolen and leaked papal correspondence that depicted the Vatican as a “seething hotbed of intrigue and infighting.” After Gabriele’s conviction, Benedict pardoned him and assigned three cardinals to look into the affair.
But on Dec. 17, when he received their report outlining the extent of the problem, Benedict decided to retire, according to The Guardian.
The report outlined the financial mismanagement and corruption issues, but the most explosive allegation was what the cardinals described as a network of gay prelates, some of whom were being blackmailed by outsiders.
They were thus guilty of breaking the seventh commandment, forbidding theft, and the sixth which relates to adultery, but which in Catholic doctrine is linked to proscribing homosexual acts.
All institutions tend to try to protect themselves and their reputations. In this country, we have recently seen how both the Roman Catholic Church and Penn State University have found ways to cover up sex abuse charges.
But the corruption charges that Benedict faces are magnified by several degrees.
Unable to get a handle on them, he decided to resign and let a successor try to tackle them.
But will his successor be able to do that?
Here is where steps taken both by Pope John Paul II and Benedict are likely to blow up in the church’s face. For over the past 30 years, the two of them have packed the College of Cardinals, and indeed the ranks of the church’s 3,000 bishops, with men who, for the most part, are not creative thinkers or intellectuals. Instead, they are men who fight to retain the status quo.
In the last couple of days, a number of other sources have been reporting on how the two issues, corruption and homosexuality, dominate the very fabric of the Roman Curia. It’s going to require a very strong pope to re-establish the integrity of the church.
A medieval structure and mind-set will not meet the needs of today’s church.