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Inside the Vatican

February 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in Rome and the domed basilica that rises above it, the very heart of the Catholic faith. It was here 25 years ago that the world last watched for white smoke to rise from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla was a surprise choice, who came to be one of the key figures of the 20th century. In October, John Paul II celebrated his years in office as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and as the supreme executive of a sovereign state that sits in the heart of Rome.

In recent months, the pontiff’s health has thrown a new spotlight on the Vatican, and inevitably on the future of the Church. What takes place here in Rome is of interest and importance to millions of people around the world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But what really goes on at the Vatican behind the scenes is famously difficult to know. The Church, so steeped in history and ritual, is also steeped in an atmosphere of secrecy that makes it almost unique in the world today.

So what is it like covering the Vatican?

JOHN ALLEN: I tell you, from my point of view, journalistically speaking, this is the greatest show on earth. I mean, the Vatican puts together geopolitics and spirituality and ethics with mystery and romance and ritual and palace intrigue, you know, into one sort of infinitely fascinating menagerie.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper, is one of the few American journalists covering the Vatican full-time. A former high school teacher and practicing Catholic, Allen writes a weekly column, “The Word from Rome,” and is author of “Conclave,” a book on people and issues in the next papal election. Penetrating the Vatican’s veil, he says, requires up-close personal contact and a good sense of history.

JOHN ALLEN: You know, when you’re covering the White House, if they’re making a reference to something that happened in the Clinton administration, that sounds like ancient history. Around here, it’s nothing to be dropping references to the 5th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: In one of Rome’s little-known gems, the Church of St. Francis Xavier Caravita, I talked with Allen recently about some of the big issues facing the Vatican, first, the pope’s health.

JOHN ALLEN: This is an 83-year-old man who has a number of very serious ailments, chief among them of course the Parkinson’s disease, but not just that. He suffers from a botched hip replacement surgery in 1994, which makes it almost impossible for him to walk. He has aggravated arthritis in the knees, which makes it very difficult to stand. He has hearing loss, and he fatigues easily.

But you know, beyond that, I think what has to be said is that his baseline health, that is the things you sort of normally use to get a sense of how an elderly person is doing — his circulation, his diet, his sleep patterns, his energy levels, his stamina — all of that is pretty good, which means that those other problems are more supportable than they otherwise would be. And in fact, the people around the pope are continuing to program his schedule well into 2005.

JEFFREY BROWN: How involved is he then in the functioning of the Vatican?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, you know one of the things I think is a common misunderstanding about the Vatican is that because the pope in theory and in law is the supreme authority, that necessarily means that he’s sitting behind a computer terminal punching all the buttons and controlling the Church, and it just doesn’t work like that. You know, there is a sort of president, prime minister structure in the Vatican in which the pope is the supreme authority, but day-to-day running of the Church to a very great extent has always been vested in the hands of the secretary of state. That’s the cardinal who assists the pope in his administrative tasks.

You know, beyond that, I mean, this is a pope who has been in charge now for over 25 years, and just as, you know, a network executive or a CEO of a major company, if he’d been around that long, wouldn’t necessarily have to be at his desk 12 hours a day to make sure the system was functioning according to his design.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it must be a sensitive issue, but the question would be how much planning, how much thinking is going on about what happens next?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, you know officially speaking, overtly and out in the clear light of day, there’s nothing going on by way of talking about or planning for the succession. And this, you know, reaches deep into the psychology of the institution. I mean, this is in many ways still a royal court in which it is considered both unseemly and in some ways treasonous to be talking about the death of the monarch while he’s still in power. And so there is a very strong taboo against it. And in fact, in law surrounding the election of the next pope, it is explicitly prohibited to discuss the politics of the succession while the current pope is still in office.

JEFFREY BROWN: Prohibited?

JOHN ALLEN: Prohibited. Under pain of excommunication. And so this is taken very, very seriously. On the other hand, it typically gets phrased in ways that aren’t always transparent to outsiders, because it will be talked about in terms of what are the issues facing the Church, and what are the profiles of leadership that the Church is going to need to meet those issues. So, no one is going to be talking directly about candidate X or candidate Y. There’s no, there’s no analogue to the Iowa caucuses in the selection process for picking a pope, but certainly in the sort of more oblique and indirect ways the conversation goes on.

JEFFREY BROWN: In October, John Paul installed 31 new cardinals, bringing to 131 the number eligible to elect his successor. They, like the Church itself, are a more diverse group than in the past, with leading figures from the developing world as well as Europe and North America. John Paul, long praised and criticized for his conservative stances, has appointed all by five of them.

Is it a more conservative group of cardinals that will be electing the next pope?

JOHN ALLEN: If by conservative you mean would these be cardinals who would by and large agree with the pope on the hot button issues of sexual morality that tend to preoccupy North Americans, I mean, things like birth control and abortion and women and gay rights, then certainly these cardinals would stack up by and large as conservatives.

On the other hand, on other issues, such as this issue of collegiality, how much power ought to be in Rome versus how much power ought to be at the local level, you have a considerable range of opinion inside the college. On issues like ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, what should the Church’s position be vis-à-vis the other religions of humanity, again there is a wide range of opinion. So I think it depends on what prism you’re looking through in terms of how conservative the college is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those hot button issues that play so strongly in the United States, particularly about human sexuality, do they resonate here as well? Are they as strongly in the discussions about Church policy?

JOHN ALLEN: The extent that the conversation comes up, it unfolds in terms of how do we sell the position that we have? In other words, you know, to take an example, the Vatican in the last 18 months has put out three different documents on same-sex marriage, but not to reconsider the position, but to talk about how can we compel Catholic lawmakers, for example, to back up our position? How can we persuade the public that this position is the correct position?

JEFFREY BROWN: The major story for the Church in the United States, of course, in the last few years has been the sex abuse scandal. How has that played over here? What kind of impact has it had?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think the first thing you have to understand is that it simply has not been the dominant galvanizing story here that it was in the United States. Now, on the other hand, I do think that over time the Vatican came to understand the depth of the crisis in the United States, and they did throw in significant measure the sort of business as usual out the window to engage with this crisis. I think you see that in things like the approval of the sex abuse norms for the American Church that the American bishops came up with, which depart in significant ways from the Church’s canon law, but the Vatican in effect sort of swallowed that bitter pill in order to give the Americans what the Americans felt they needed.

JEFFREY BROWN: These and other issues will face John Paul now and whoever eventually succeeds him.

And this pope, in particular, who’s been such a strong figure on the world scene, what happens after him has real consequences.

JOHN ALLEN: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean this pope has been an enormously relevant global leader for a quarter century and counting. And so I think there is a great sense that whoever steps into that role will be a figure of enormous global importance. He’ll be a spiritual leader, he will be a media superstar, he will be the head of one of the world’s great institutions, and he will be a political titan on the global stage. Those are important roles, and therefore this isn’t just good theater. I mean, it’s also something that has great consequence for where the world goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: When that day does come, John Allen says he will be joined by an estimated 6,000 other journalists here in Rome while millions here and around the world watch and wait for the white smoke.