In a period of crisis and decline of capitalism, to many people religion is the one certainty to cling on to. But if the Pope himself is no longer convinced he can keep his position until his death, this illusion of solidity begins to break down. The effect of the surprise announcement of his retirement by Pope Benedict XVI on the consciousness of over a billion Roman Catholics is going to be that of a spiritual earthquake, and it is surely going to have political consequences too.

The last time a Pope abdicated his position before Benedict XVI was in 1415, when Gregory XII retired with the purpose of recomposing the Western Schism, a forty-year long split between the Church of Rome and the Church of Avignon. The papal spokesman himself has ruled out serious health issues behind the 2013 abdication. It seems that this pontiff’s resignation is also based on a profound split within the Catholic Church and particularly within the Roman Curia, i.e. the government of the Church and the administrative apparatus of its miniature theocracy.


The material basis of the Church

The Catholic Church is organised like a cross between an old feudal monarchy and a modern political party. In a world dominated by the capitalist mode of production, it plays the role of collective ideologue on behalf of the bourgeoisie, influencing 1.2 billion people on all continents. To carry out this reactionary task it employs, in addition to the lay personnel working in its bodies and the structures it controls, an apparatus of more than 400,000 priests (half of them concentrated in Europe), 750,000 nuns etc. In the USA alone over a million men and women work for the Roman Catholic Church, in one way or another.

This enormous propaganda machine is financed mainly in three ways: with donations in money, in kind and through voluntary work (including the work of monks and nuns, who – at least on paper – are not entitled to own anything personally); with the rent from the enormous estates it owns; and through parasitism on the finances of some states, notably the Italian Republic. But these sources of finance are becoming more and more obstructed.

The decline in “vocations” has forced the European Church to import clergy en masse from the Third World. The quota of Catholics in the world population is stagnating at 17%, however this hides the steep qualitative reduction of adherence to religious precepts and liturgy, which translates into scarcer donations and a weakening of the transmission of the faith across generations.

The statistics show how most Catholics do not attend the Holy Mass weekly and in many countries the attendance figures are steadily shrinking; in Italy in 1995-2000 48% of adult Catholics declared that they were following this fundamental prescript, in 2005-2008 only 36% were doing so. Such data also do not reflect the real situation. For instance, a poll commissioned by the Vatican itself in a central-Sicily diocese actually organised a physical headcount of how many among those who said they go to church every Sunday (30%) are actually doing so. The result showed that only about half of them (18%) were actually attending mass.

Between1990 and 2010 the number of children being Confirmed went down by 18% in Europe, although this was compensated for by an increase in the Third World; the amount of First Communions has declined so steeply in the advanced countries that it has led to a global fall of 5% in the same time span.

The relative growth of the Church in some underdeveloped areas of the globe cannot sustain the costs of its weakening in the West. In those countries that are economically decisive for the Church, the faithful themselves do not seem particularly attached to it; according to a 2005 opinion poll, 44% of Italian Catholics are of the opinion that the Church does not give adequate answers to the problems of family life. In Northern Italy in 2011 civil marriages had already overtaken religious marriages. Similar statistics can be found for the Catholic population of most Western countries, including Spain and Ireland.

There is also a growing hostility of public opinion against ecclesiastic privileges, especially outrageous in times of crisis and in those countries with a Catholic majority, but it is significant also in countries like the USA, where such privileges are shared among myriads of Christian denominations and other faith organisations.

Combine all this with the competition from more modern and aggressive Churches and the threats to the stability of the Vatican’s cash flow can be easily understood. This has made the Vatican more and more dependent on the reinvestment of its capital resources in financial operations, exploiting the possibility of using their statelet in Rome as a tax haven and an international money launderer. The instrument for such risky transactions is the IOR, a private bank based in the Holy See under the direct control of the Pope. This bank was created in 1929 in order to efficiently manage the funds coming in from the Fascist State after the Lateran Pacts between Italian State and the Vatican were signed by Mussolini and the Pope’s prime minister. There could be no better illustration of the close link between the “money changers in the temple” and the most reactionary aspects of capitalism.


Court intrigues

In 2006 Joseph Ratzinger picked Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as his new secretary of state, i.e. prime minister. Bertone had already been “working” with Ratzinger in the Roman Inquisition, and they were allies in the 2005 conclave (the papal conclave is the cardinals’ congress that elects a new Pope). From that position over the years he has accumulated remarkable power that he has been using most recklessly against the growing ranks of his enemies within the papal court.

It is in the context of a sharp conflict between Bertone’s faction and his opponents in the Curia (like Cardinal Sodano, Cardinal Ruini and other “Woytylians”) that the Vatileaks scandal erupted. This scandal consisted in a series of leaks about two main questions: the dirtiness of Vatican finances and the imminence of a pontifical succession.

Since 2008 Cardinal Bertone has been the head of the governing body of the IOR. From there, he has been opposing all attempts by the Italian central bank and the Council of Europe to make the IOR’s workings less opaque. Basically, at present, anybody can anonymously open a bank account there by using a clergyman accomplice as a proxy. Since 2010 a series of scandals emerged, exposing how the IOR is the favourite partner of several Italian and European big banks for black transactions. In December 2010, 23 million euros belonging to a nameless IOR client were frozen by the Italian authorities.

The unfolding of the economic crisis meant that the banking authorities were less willing to be tolerant towards the IOR’s way of operating, acting in utter papal deregulation, tax-free and in total disregard for international regulations. The situation got so bad that the Italian authorities forcibly switched off all ATMs in the Vatican City. Rumours, reported by the daily paper La Repubblica as originating in the Roman Curia, say that the ATM blockade and the resignation of Benedict XVI are closely linked.

In 2009, Ratzinger and Bertone named as president of the IOR Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, a banker supportive of the “free-market Catholic theory” who holds that the current economic crisis is caused by abortion and contraception. However, when Gotti Tedeschi tried to interfere with the workings of the bank in order to make them a bit more transparent, he came up against a brick wall. It is the same wall that stopped archbishop Viganò when, after being placed in charge of sorting out the huge budget deficit of the Holy See, he ended up stepping on the toes of too many corrupt high priests. The name of this brick wall is Marco Simeon. He is a minion of Cardinal Bertone (rumours say he is his son!) who schemed for the dismissal of Viganò and, later, Gotti Tedeschi.

The leaks are likely to have started as a reprisal against the “Bertonian party”. Explicit letters by Viganò were circulated to the press; detailed information on the conflict unfolding within the IOR was revealed. Journalists even got hold of a classified document written for Pope Benedict, in which it is reported that a Sicilian cardinal had spoken to some Chinese ecclesiastics predicting a new Pope before 2013. The Chinese understood it as a murder threat, but in hindsight it sounds arguably as a reference to the coming abdication. In this document, Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan and a sworn enemy of Bertone, is also indicated as the designated successor of Ratzinger. The whistleblower was also identified: hilarious as it might sound, the guilty individual turns out to be the butler! The pope’s personal butler was then arrested by the Vatican Gendarmerie – an unprecedented event in itself – on 24 May. That same day, Gotti Tedeschi is dumped.

The butler maintained that he would trigger Vatileaks with the goal of protecting the Church and the Pope himself from the enemy within: greed and corruption... and its secretary of state. It is worth noting that the trial ended with a sentence, but the pontiff pardoned the butler. Some explain the abdication of Ratzinger as an extreme measure to untangle the Curia from the suffocating grip of Bertone. It would not be easy, and Ratzinger did not seem keen, to fire the secretary of state, but if the Pope quits then his prime minister must quit at once, and he may not be confirmed if the conclave settles a new balance of power. Apparently, Bertone is using these last days before 28 February – the announced abdication date – to place his minions in key positions; significantly enough, he rushed to have a fresh new group of obedient Bertonians take over the management of the IOR. Everything indicates an exacerbation of the internal struggle.

Popes change, problems remain

Joseph Ratzinger’s election represented a departure from the line of John Paul II, based on universalism, ecumenism and an attempt at appealing more to the youth. As Marxists, we know that  Karol Wojtyła’s policy was no less reactionary: the Polish pope opened his reign under the banner of blatant anti-Communism and bigotry, and that the fake anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist postures adopted after the collapse of the USSR and during the war in Iraq were actually used to occupy political space on the left and to divert millions of youth into the sterile ground of mass gatherings at the World Youth Day, pulling them away from the struggle against capitalism. This manoeuvre, however, revealed its limits with the so-called anti-globalisation movement, when the attempted Catholic hijacking of the movement yielded very meagre results. As a matter of fact, the fake anti-capitalism of Wojtyła did not even manage to hinder the leftward shift in Latin America, and ecumenism failed to significantly slow down the march of other religions and new sects. Despite Wojtyła’s intentions, his alleged openness did not effectively counter the weakened influence of the Catholic dogma, and at the end of the day it merely made the numerous black sheep in the Catholic flock go along with the prevailing trends. To the cardinals attending the conclave, the election of Ratzinger must have tasted like black coffee after a night of binge boozing.

The election of this German theologian was an obscurantist choice that implied a shift in focus back to the hard core of conservative true believers. It was a provincial choice which was aimed at looking after the greedy interests of the Church in Italy and the intrigues within the Curia of Rome. As we can see, this line also faced huge problems and has now been defeated. His papacy has seen a never-ending stream of embarrassing scandals, dramatic splits, and reactionary statements.

Already in his sermon as Dean of the cardinals’ conclave, before being elected, he attacked the “dictatorship of relativism”, listing the ideological enemies of the Christian faith hidden behind the relativist menace – among which Marxism deserved to be mentioned in first place. With the Regensburg lecture of 2006, besides launching a provocation against Moslems while winking at religious intolerance, he revived his crusade against relativism by preaching the medieval opposition of the reason of science and the reason of faith. He tried to blur or even revoke the innovations introduced by Vatican Council II and readmitted four ultraconservative Traditionalist Christian bishops, including one who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

He inherited from the previous pope the massive scandal of the cover-ups and complicity of diocesan chanceries and the Vatican in cases of rapes committed by priests, particularly on children, and he managed the cases with reticence and a conspiracy of silence (this is all backfiring now with protests in many countries against reprehensible cardinals being allowed into the new conclave). He confirmed the most stubborn clerical stance on contraception, AIDS prevention, the right to abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality. He dogmatically rejected any request for innovation in the ecclesiastic structure coming from those fringes of the clergy more concerned with the crisis of trustworthiness and vocations.

The 2005 conclave found a way out of the standoff between Ratzinger and the Argentinian Jesuit Bergoglio thanks to the “betrayal” of some Latin American cardinals who chose to switch side to Ratzinger, who knows in exchange for what. The composition of the caste of cardinals is very much weighted towards some countries that are financially decisive for the Catholic Church. Despite the proclaimed global vision of Christianity, 49 cardinals out of 209 are from Italy. The second most represented nation is the USA, though they only have 19. The whole of Latin America gets a mere 30. The consistories held by Benedict XVI have strengthened the Italo-centric and Euro-centric allocation of cardinals. This pope has created so many cardinals that the next conclave will have within it a majority of cardinals chosen by him. Any attempts to elect a non-European pope, to be used in poorer countries with the same political function that Karol Wojtyła had in Eastern Europe, will meet fierce opposition from the powerful Italian lobbies in the College of Cardinals.

Most likely the showdown will be between one of Bertone’s men, such as Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and a member of the anti-Bertonian front, e.g. Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan. Cardinal Scola is a member of Communion and Liberation (CL), an ultra-reactionary movement acting as an organised faction within the Catholic Church. CL eagerly recruits from the youth, rears them in CL schools, sends them to universities and afterwards tries to find important positions for them in the Big Business milieu – as entrepreneurs or managers, or just as employees of CL members – where CL operates as an economic lobby with known connections to right-wing politicians and the mafia. This group was founded in the 1950s with the clear goal of stopping the influence of left-wing ideas among the students, and features distinctive Red Scare obsessions and intense political activism. They have their own special theology constructed with sectarian methods around the abstruse pseudo-philosophical jargon of their deceased guru Father Giussani. Getting a pope belonging to their own tendency is one of the main goals of this “entrist” group – and for the first time this now seems within reach – embodied in the potential pontiff Angelo Scola. CL members have not hidden their enthusiasm; they went to Saint Peter’s Square a few days after the abdication was announced with a large banner reading Thanks, Your Holiness! The awkward presence of CL behind Scola can nonetheless scare away many anti-Bertonians, for several of them belong to rival movements and factions like Opus Dei. Will CL form a coalition of Catholic sects in support of Scola on the basis of some sort of power sharing agreement? We will see.

A system in crisis

The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of its ideological pillars. No new pope can find a way out of this cul-de-sac. The Roman Catholic Church, a formidable factor of stability for world capitalism, can turn into its opposite to become an element of instability. A bank-Church can blow like banks sometimes do. A Church which speaks an anachronistic language when dealing with civil rights and social equality, but which at the same time understands very well the language of power and financial derivatives can rapidly lose the broad support it still enjoys. Splits at the top over obscure power struggles will undermine its credibility and heralds schisms, both on the right, like the Traditional Catholics, and on the left, like the Theology of Liberation.

The Pope/King has no clothes. Demands such as completely cutting the state funding of Churches, expropriating their properties, kicking the priests out of state schools, etc., will become more and more popular. The workers and youth will look for a more radical way of expressing their hatred of the money changers in the temple. And this can only find a progressive expression in a worldwide struggle against all the money changers and all the temples: the struggle for international socialism.