Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
The Vatican today appears rocked by scandalous rumors and resignations just as church leaders must gear up to replace frail Pope Benedict XVI within weeks.
But Vatican experts say if you think the world's largest non-governmental institution is in unprecedented chaos right now, think again.
"Have you ever heard of the Borgias?" quips professor Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department for Fordham University, New York. They were the larcenous, adulterous, murderous, election-rigging, Renaissance-era family of renaissance popes "who ran the papacy for decades like a private fief."
For all the sex, money and power headlines wafting out of Rome these days, at least no one has been murdered. Infighting and innuendo, though, are ancient traditions that have moved into the bright lights of the 24/7 news cycle social media.
"It's high season for reporting chaos," Tilley says. "There have always been rumors about money, power and sex in the Vatican. The question is not whether but how much. There's a lot of smoke, right now. Is there a spark, yes. If it's a fire, is it a small campfire or a five-alarm conflagration? No one knows."
Fueling the flames:
-- Benedict, soon to turn 86, is the first pope in 600 years to say he doesn't have the strength to carry on and step down. On Monday, four days before his last to be occupying the throne of St. Peter, he changed the rules for picking his successor to speed up the vote in March.
That throws the election speculation into overdrive. "All the factions in the Vatican in Italy and in the church beyond that are pulling out all the stops to try to influence the conclave," says Tilley.
-- Keith O'Brien, Britain's top cardinal, announced Monday he's skipping the conclave, just as the Vatican announced O'Brien is out as an archbishop. O'Brien's request for retirement, filed last year, was abruptly accepted this weekend as news accounts broke accusing O'Brien of "inappropriate behavior" with priests.
Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, says that move raises suspicion. "The single most important thing a cardinal ever does in his life is vote for the pope," so O'Brien recusing himself raises all kinds of questions, he says.
-- Last week, Italian newspaper La Repubblica, leaning on unnamed sources, touted a secret report by three cardinals that purportedly revealed sexual shenanigans among gay priests and officials at the curia, the bureaucracy of the church.
On Monday, Benedict met with the cardinals, who had been his special team for investigating Vatileaks. According to the Vatican Press office, their report is "known only to himself" and will be handed over "solely" to the next pope. Of the contents, Benedict said only that it revealed the "limitations and imperfections" introduced by the "human factor" in "every institution," according to Religion News Service.
Reese discounts the Italian media reports as no more credible than unedited blogs. "Sometimes they get it right and sometimes wrong and sometimes it seems like their writers came from creative writing classes, not journalism. ... Where's the beef? Where are the facts?"
-- Last year, the curia was embarrassed by a raft of disclosures in a stolen-documents scandal, dubbed Vatileaks. The documents portrayed the curia as rife with personal rivalries and concerns about financial mismanagement.
Bringing 21st-century management and transparency to Vatican operations is high among the qualities many Vatican observers cite for the next pope. But that would require someone with a strong base in Rome and could tilt the election away from candidates from Latin America, Africa and Asia, regions where most Catholics now live.
Choosing the next pope has always been a matter of geopolitical and personal intrigue. Tilley describes how, in 2005 when Benedict was chosen, rumors floated that a contender had depression, others were in ill health or inappropriately involved in politics.
"At least some of the rumors had the rough validity of the controversy over President Obama's birth certificate," Tilley says.
David Gibson, author of a biography of Benedict and Vatican specialist for Religion News Service, says, "It looks like the Vatican is in chaos and the church is crumbling because it's a rare time when no one is in charge."
Normally, no one in the Vatican can say anything public and open debate on issues is discouraged. Normally, a pope dies in office and the cardinals have a long to-do list of funeral activities and mourning before they turn to choosing a successor, Gibson says.
Now, however, "suddenly the pope is on his way out and people are freer to say things they couldn't say before. This is a time of open liberty to talk about where the church needs to go. It's a time of venting and vetting.
"They are facing something like an entire presidential campaign in less than a month. You have to get your views out there and make sure the men you consider voting for don't have have skeletons in their closet," Gibson says.
Ultimately, the world outside the conclave may never know how much today's upheavals will affect the 115 cardinals now expected in Rome to vote for the next pope.
Once the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel, with all electronic communications cut off and votes scheduled twice a day, "all this fuss and bother, the din outside will have little effect on them," Tilley says.
"They are going to eat and pray and vote. They'll talk to each other and they'll talk to God and, in between, they'll just be bored."