Exploding myths about the Vatican

Journalist and author John Allen gives the real story about the Church hierarchy
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN)—Veteran Rome-based reporter and author John L. Allen, Jr, says there is no such thing as “the Vatican” as commonly portrayed by the mainstream media.

“Only seen from afar” is the Vatican perceived as a bunch of “Stepford wives all in lockstep,” the National Catholic Reporter’s senior correspondent told the Canadian Catholic School Trustees Association annual conference in Ottawa Sept. 23.

Those who work in the Vatican come from a wide variety of backgrounds and sometimes have widely differing viewpoints, he said.

“We think we know what classes of people are like,” he said, noting these stereotypes are often wrong and this is especially true of those who work in the Roman Curia.

Allen, whose most recent book is The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, also blasted the myth of “ultra-centralization” and the idea that there is “some central figure who controls everything.”

The Catholic Church is “top-down on doctrine” but “bottom up on everything else,” when it comes to administration, finances, personnel and management, he said.

On these other issues, “Rome is not even aware they are happening,” he said.

The total workforce for the Roman Curia is 2,170 people who serve 1.2 billion Catholics.

“The Vatican does not have the tools to micromanage,” he said.

This myth of central control plays into debates about clerical sexual abuse, Allen said, because it underlies assumptions among victims’ and their lawyers that there is some “smoking gun in the Vatican” responsible for the crisis.

Another myth is that the Vatican is ultra-wealthy, he said. The annual operating budget of the Vatican City State is $270 million, he said, comparing that with the annual operating budget of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana which is $1.2 billion.

The Catholic Church in the United States collects $200 million a week, almost enough in a week to fund the Vatican for a year, he said.

As for the buildings, real estate and money in the patrimony of the Holy See, Allen said it amounts to an endowment of $1 billion. The endowment of Notre Dame University is $30 billion and that of Harvard University $100 billion.

The Holy See’s financial means are “not as endless as people imagine,” he said.

As for the Vatican art, it is “literally priceless,” Allen said, because it can never be sold but is kept for the benefit of humankind and requires millions of dollars to maintain and restore. Though the Vatican museum collects entry fees, that money is used to defray the mammoth maintenance and restoration costs.

Another myth is Vatican secrecy, he said. According to the popular views, everything is a mystery, a secret in an ultra-Byzantine, closed society.

“The problem of the Vatican isn’t secrecy, it is singularity and it is often easy to get it wrong,” he said. He told an anecdote of an American reporter just assigned to cover the Vatican after covering the statehouse in Albany, New York. He came to a news conference in which then Cardinal Ratzinger spoke on the publication of Dominus Iesus.

The man was listening to the translation of the cardinal’s Italian and his eyes were glazing over, Allen said. Allen later had to explain what the story was about to the reporter.

The Vatican is not impenetrable; it is idiosyncratic, Allen added. One needs to know Italian, how the Church understands herself and the internal language of the Vatican such as the differences between congregations and commissions and other aspects of the curial set up.

Allen also criticized the myth of careerism that assumes that most people in the curia are angling for a step up the ladder. “Nobody applies to work in the Vatican and most have no idea how they got there,” he said. Some people do make a career out of working there, but most rotate out after five years or so.

He also dismissed the popular view that cardinals are “jockeying or scheming to become pope.”

Cardinals are “true believers,” he said, who regard the Pope as the Successor of Peter. Thus, they know the saintly requirements for the job and are very aware of their own humanity.

And “grubby human reasons” also come into play, he said. Cardinals know being pope is “a tough gig,” and a “life sentence,” that requires you to be a living saint, CEO of one of the largest organizations in the world, and a representative of the whole Christian family, “a bone-crushing impossibility.”

The life of a retired cardinal in Rome can allow him to continue to be invited to the best events, influence favored movements and perhaps write or pursue other interests, he said.

Allen said popes need the ability to laugh at themselves as a survival strategy.

He talked about writing a book on Pope Benedict XVI that made predictions about how his pontificate would unfold. Allen received a message from the Vatican spokesman telling him the Pope had read his book and wanted him to know that he was thankful Allen had given thought to how his pontificate would unfold so now Pope Benedict didn’t have to.

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3 Responses to Exploding myths about the Vatican

  1. toadspittle says:


    “Allen said popes need the ability to laugh at themselves as a survival strategy.”

    Just like the rest of us!


  2. teresa says:

    A very nice article, a lot of facts to refute prejudices.
    As for Papal humour here is a piece for a giggle:
    Blessed John XXIII is an exception, as he was in many other ways, and two of his wisecracks have been widely circulated. In one, the pope is asked how many people work at the Vatican, to which the pontiff replies, “About half.” In the other, the pope visits the Convent of the Holy Spirit, where the somewhat flustered nun in charge greets him by saying, “Welcome, Your Holiness, I am the superior of the Holy Spirit,” to which John responds, “Congratula-tions, sister; I am merely the Vicar of Jesus Christ.”
    more at: http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/id/4746


  3. toadspittle says:


    Not a word about The Sacred Monkeys in the Vatican.

    Why the secrecy?


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