“Secrets of the Vatican” Brought Down Benedict

One of the more striking accomplishments of tonight’s Frontline documentary “Secrets of the Vatican” (Tuesday, 10 p.m., PBS) is that it almost makes you feel sorry for Pope Benedict, which is no small feat. The man known as “God’s Rottweiler” was a heavy-handed enforcer of doctrinal discipline as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where numerous nuns, priests and theologians saw their careers crippled or destroyed for daring to question supposedly immutable Catholic teaching.

He was also one of many in the curia who turned a blind eye to increasing urgent reports of widespread sexual abuse on the part of priests and influential Vatican allies like Marcial Maciel of the Legionnaires of Christ, and “Inside the Vatican” effectively portrays the devastation that this abuse and subsequent cover-ups wrought on the lives of young Catholics.

It documents how a cascading series of scandals involving clerical sex abuse and Vatican corruption eventually overwhelmed the aging pope and resulted in his resignation one year ago. Confirmed are reports that the infamous “red dossier” presented to the pope—the results of an investigation into the curia that he ordered—contained accounts not only of rampant careerism and outright corruption but of the existence of a clique of gay senior clerics.

The report further documents a “don’t ask, don’t tell” gay subculture in the Vatican with some pretty shocking footage that hasn’t been widely seen outside of the Italian media. There’s a certain satisfying irony to the fact that the man who spent his life crusading against what he saw as the corrupting influence of moral relativism and the concomitant push for reproductive and LGBT rights (Ratzinger declared as head of the CDF that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and therefore homosexuality could never be moral) was brought to his knees by the knowledge of the sexual hypocrisy within his own house. This is balanced by the genuine sadness of gay clerics who are portrayed as struggling to remain faithful to the church in the face of such teaching.

In fact, it’s dealing with the toxic combination of clericalism and sexual hypocrisy that presents Pope Francis with his biggest challenge in addition to the already monumental task of bringing the curia to heel. “Inside the Vatican” makes clear just how difficult it is to dismantle longstanding power centers within the papal court. It suggests that the “Vatileaks” scandal was just the tip of the iceberg and that Pope Benedict’s butler took the fall for senior clerics looking to air the Vatican’s dirty laundry after repeated efforts at reform were foiled.

Francis took a concrete step in the direction of reform Monday with the creation of a new office to oversee economic affairs at the Vatican, including the troubled Vatican Bank. But as Mary Hunt and others have noted, it’s unraveling the tangled knot of the hierarchy’s attitudes toward women and sex, the elevation of clerics above “ordinary” Catholics, and the institutional church’s deep predilection for secrecy and self-protection that needs reform before real change can occur, no matter Francis’ best intentions. 

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.

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