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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.
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.
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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.