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


There is a saying in secular Rome: "morto un papa se ne fa un altro", or "if a pope dies, one simply makes another one." But it isn't that easy this time. The pope is still alive and the curia is divided, which makes everything so difficult to predict.

Influencing the Vote?

Joseph Ratzinger, Bishop of Rome emeritus, will not be present at the conclave. He is five years too old for that. For days, papal spokesman Federico Lombardi has denied that the soon-to-be-ex-pope could nevertheless influence the conclave's decision, saying that Benedict is too modest. But no one believes Lombardi.

Every word Benedict will utter in the coming days will be carefully analyzed and possibly even interpreted as a message to the conclave. This was already evident at the Ash Wednesday mass, at which Benedict spoke of "religious hypocrisy," of "individuals and rivalries" and of "sins against the unity of the church and divisions in the body of the church." All of this is unambiguous criticism, a settling of accounts, as well as an allusion to the conclave and a preview of what could come in the next few weeks.

Benedict is giving up power and, at the same time, is accusing his underlings of being obsessed with power, and of clinging to power and of thus being unable to follow their hearts, as he has done. A comparably explosive constellation hasn't been seen at the Vatican in a long time.

Power brokers and lobbyists are already nervously testing the waters to determine what snares could entrap the next pope. Most of all, what will it mean for him if his predecessor isn't already in his tomb, but is still in full command of his faculties and residing only a few steps away from the Apostolic Palace?

Benedict has been careful to point out that he intends to "hide from the world." Nevertheless, he will be a source of conflict for as long as he lives. How will the cardinals behave when a new pope makes mistakes, when he spoils his relationship with key factions in the curia or when he launches reforms blocked by his predecessor? Benedict himself won't even have to comment, as long as real or supposed confidants whisper anything about how the old man feels about the change of course -- and his successor's position will already be weakened.

Tensions are already looming. Benedict's closest confidant, Gänswein, will perhaps be serving two masters in the future. The 56-year-old curial archbishop will "remain prefect of the papal household and will also be secretary to Benedict," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

'A Shadow Pope'

As a result, Gänswein is likely to become one of the most influential bishops in the Roman court. At the same time, he will live near Benedict's new residence in the monastery opposite St. Peter's Basilica, where they will be able to receive visitors together and discuss the condition of the church. Gänswein will also play an important role as prefect of the papal household.

"Benedict threatens to become a shadow pope," says Swiss theologian Hans Küng. One cannot simply stop being pope, says Benedict biographer Andreas Englisch. "In the worst case, a part of the church would split off, perhaps because Ratzinger believed that his successor was doing great harm to the church."

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