Zero Hour at the Vatican: Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

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Benedict's mumbled announcement of his resignation was the starting gun for preparations ahead of the pre-conclave. It is a time when cardinals come together -- purely coincidentally, of course, for reasons having nothing to do with Benedict's resignation. They converse quietly in small seafood restaurants outside the Vatican, they pray -- and they consider coalitions and subversions.

This was already evident in Rome on Ash Wednesday, two days after Benedict's announcement. While the line of pilgrims circled once around St. Peter's Square and Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone quickly reviewed his farewell speech, a book was being presented in a brightly lit bookstore near Rome's Termini train station, one in which facts and fiction quickly become intertwined.

The book is about the "bloody war of the cardinals before the conclave," about the Vatican bank IOR, the Opus Dei society, and a secret dossier on sexual abuse, and it describes how two favorites for the papacy eliminate each other and two others die. There is a new pope in the end -- a Chinese pope.

A Frenzy of Interpretation

It's only a novel, of course, but "Le mani sul Vaticano" is certainly inspired by the realities that exist within the curia. For several years, author Carlo Marroni has been one of the most influential Vaticanisti, the correspondents at the Vatican, and the diplomatic correspondent for the business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. His book now reads like something of a forecast of the conclave.

Vatican correspondents agree that there will be a battle for control. The focus is already on holding on to power, the threat that heads will roll and on the web of relationships within the curia after Ratzinger's departure.

Only a day after Benedict's announcement, two former enemies are appeared together in public, seemingly on good terms, with newspapers launching into a frenzy of interpretation. It was Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone, the man who wields the most power at the Vatican after the pope, and Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Bertone has been sharply criticized for his dubious role in the Vatileaks affair, while Bagnasco was his subtle adversary. Both men are "papabili," or possible successors to Benedict.

The man whose ascension both men are trying to prevent, according to rumors spread by Italian newspapers, is Angelo Scola, the 72-year-old archbishop of Milan. Scola, a student of Ratzinger, is the favored candidate of the fundamentalist group within the curia, and is closely aligned with the conservative lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, which in turn is associated with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The conservative Scola is currently considered the Italian frontrunner for the papal election.

The battle between Secretary of State Bertone and his predecessor, Angelo Sodano, is also heating up. Sodano holds Bertone responsible for "depravity" in the "poorly run Vatican state," says Marco Ansaldo of the Italian daily La Repubblica. According to Ansaldo, both men will gain more power after Benedict's resignation, and they will also come into conflict with each other. Sodano will head the conclave, and has begun mobilizing his supporters. Bertano, who, as "Camerlengo", manages the property and revenues of the Holy See, is doing the same thing.

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