The Vatican Diaries

New book 'The Vatican Diaries' shows the human side of the Catholic Church's headquarters.

By Kevin Birnbaum

Since the election of Pope Francis, one of the big questions about his pontificate has been whether he will be able to clean up the Vatican’s bureaucracy, the Roman Curia.

'The Vatican Diaries' by John Thavis
By John Thavis
(New York, 2013)
336 pp., $27.95

If nothing else, longtime Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief John Thavis’ new book, “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church,” makes painfully clear just how desperately the Vatican needs a good housecleaning.

The book exposes the incompetence, cowardice, miscommunication, short-sightedness and self-serving motives behind, for example, the Vatican’s handling of the scandal involving Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who sexually abused dozens of his own seminarians, fathered children and squirreled away tens of millions of dollars for himself, yet was long protected by powerful allies from investigation despite decades of accusations.

“The Vatican Diaries” explores some of the most unpleasant episodes in recent church history, but Catholics shouldn’t be afraid to follow Thavis into the muck. The book opens with an appropriate epigraph from St. Augustine: “This is the very perfection of man, to find out his own imperfections.”

The lighter side
Thavis does much more than merely shine a light on the darkest corners of the Catholic Church, and his book isn’t as uniformly dreary as the previous paragraphs might suggest.

The more serious chapters — about the sex abuse scandal, the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and the ongoing debate over the legacy of Pope Pius XII — alternate with lighter fare: delicious anecdotes about mishaps on the papal plane, an uncomfortably awkward stroll through the Vatican Gardens shared by Pope Benedict and President Bush, and the book’s most unforgettable character — a loud-mouthed, rule-breaking American priest who somehow became the Vatican’s top Latin translator.

Each of the book’s 10 chapters is impressively reported and laced with fascinating behind-the-scenes details and insights. Even the most depressing sections make compelling reading.

In all of it, Thavis reveals the human side of the Vatican — the saintly, the scandalous, and the hilarious.

Not so well-oiled
In the introduction, he gives what amounts to a “thesis statement” for the book: “The popular image of the Vatican is largely a myth. In the news and entertainment industries, the Vatican is portrayed as an organizational behemoth — monumental, powerful and cloaked in secrecy, a well-oiled machine quietly pursuing a global agenda with a hierarchy that marches in lockstep.

“The real Vatican is a place where cardinals crack jokes and lose their tempers, where each agency of the Roman Curia jealously guards its turf, where the little guys and big shots may work at cross-purposes and where slipups and misunderstandings are common. It’s a place where the pope’s choice of a particular hat can become the raging controversy of the day, and where an American cardinal hell-bent on underground parking can evict a two-thousand-year-old necropolis. It’s a place where the carefully orchestrated liturgies and ceremonies sometimes come unglued.”

It’s a place well worth reading about.

“The Vatican Diaries” would be an enjoyable, informative read at any time. In this moment of papal transition, when the Vatican is so much on people’s minds and in the media, it’s an invaluable window on the inner workings of this endlessly interesting institution that Pope Francis has inherited.