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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of John Thavis' "The Vatican Diaries"

John Thavis has impeccable timing.  His book, The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church, came out February 21, just in time to take advantage of the uptick in interest in all things Roman Catholic with Pope Benedict XVI's departure and the election of a new pope.  And let me assure you that, while Thavis' timing is great, his book is even better.
Photo from johnthavis.com
John Thavis is a retired American journalist  who covered the Vatican from 1983-2012 for Catholic News Service.  While The Vatican Diaries contain some vignettes from Pope John Paul II's time, Thavis' focus is particularly on Vatican machinations under the tenure of Pope Benedict XVI.

The purpose of the book is to provide a more accurate depiction of the culture of the Vatican than the 'caricature of power and authority' that dominates our understanding.  Thavis notes that many of us believe the Vatican to be a place where power and secrecy prevail, where hierarchical authority is clearly delineated from the top-down in a nice pyramid-like political structure.  The reality, Thavis argues, is much messier, and indeed, much more interesting.  Rather than the popular image of the Vatican as "an organizational behemoth - monumental, powerful and cloaked in secrecy" with a "hierarchy that marches in lockstep", Thavis paints a picture of the Vatican as decentralized and disorganized, in which the atmosphere is "more medieval village than corporate headquarters".  Curial offices fight for their turf, and in the midst of this, the pope is often kept in the dark about details of decisions made by the Curia.  This situation leads to a state of affairs where gaffes, miscommunication, and mixed messages are frequently the norm.

If may sound like Thavis has an axe to grind against the Vatican, but this is not the case.  Thavis writes as one who is clearly sympathetic to the Catholic Church and to the men who hold high office in the Vatican.  But he is honest in his appraisal of Vatican politics, particularly as exemplified in the key issues that marked Pope Benedict XVI's time in office.  With painstaking detail, Thavis delves into the sexual abuse crisis - and particularly the Vatican's handling of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder and leader of the Legionnaires who was accused of sexual abuse by numerous seminarians and who was eventually censured by the Vatican.  Thavis looks as well at attempts by the Vatican under Benedict to bring about reconciliation with the Lefebvrists, and the debacle of Benedict lifting the excommunication of one of the Lefebvrist bishops, only to learn that he was a Holocaust-denier; he examines the controversy surrounding Benedict's declaration of Pope Pius XII as 'Venerable'; and he writes about the church's handling of issues surrounding sexuality, particularly clerical celibacy, contraception, and homosexuality.  The Vatileaks affair also comes up for analysis.

Thavis doesn't delve into these events/issues in a sensationalistic manner.  Rather, in contrast to the usually superficial accounts that predominate, Thavis analyzes precisely what happened and provides helpful analysis of what went wrong and what the Vatican, and Pope Benedict, did right.  But what emerges from these accounts is a Vatican that does indeed require the curial reform.

Indeed, it was this that I found most valuable about Thavis' book.  In the wake of Pope Benedict's resignation, we've heard numerous reports that curial reform is a priority for the cardinals as they elect a new pope.  The Vatican Diaries outlines precisely why curial reform is such a priority, and why the next pope needs to have more of a gift for administration than perhaps Pope Benedict had.

Again, in recent weeks we've heard less-than-positive assessments of Pope Benedict as an administrator and manager, and in a chapter on the pope, Thavis outlines not only how difficult the position of pope is, but also how Benedict flourished in some facets of the job and not in others. According to Thavis, Benedict took a low-key approach to the papacy.  Faced with opposition whenever he attempted to reform the curia, Benedict appeared to recognize that his advanced age simply didn't allow for him to enact much change; this is an astute observation by Thavis, particularly given that he wrote this chapter before the pope, citing his age and health, resigned.  Thavis' overall assessment of Benedict is sympathetic.  He portrays Benedict as an academic who was frequently misunderstood by the media.  He was, according to Thavis, uncomfortable in crowds, and appeared not always to know how to engage them.  Unlike previous popes - like John Paul II, who was at one time a poet and factory worker - Benedict's entire life had always revolved around the church, in which he found tremendous peace.  This brought with it a great love for the church, but also perhaps brought limitations in terms of how to engage the world.

©GIANCARLO GIULIANI/CPP/Getty Images Europe
The Vatican Diairies also contains some very interesting - and funny - stories about life at the Vatican.  Thavis recounts the story behind why the bells took so long to ring after the white smoke in 2005, he discusses life as a journalist traveling with the pope to various countries, and he writes a wonderful chapter about the Fr. Reginald Foster (the Vatican's primary Latinist and all-around character).  Particularly interesting to me was Thavis' account of Pope Benedict's particular lack of enthusiasm when it came to meeting with President George W. Bush.  I wonder whether Bush understood the veiled insult behind Benedict's comment in 2008 that perhaps, now that he was leaving the presidency, he might actually have time to read a book.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Vatican Diaries.  The book is well worth reading, particularly at this time of papal transition, as it provides a nuanced account of the challenges that will face the next pope, whoever he may be.  In the meantime, Thavis has a blog that he is updated daily during the conclave.  I've consistently found his blog to be insightful.  You can get to the blog here.  And you can buy his book through the link below.

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