Spiegel has a lengthy piece on the intrigue around the court of Pope Benedict in the waning years of his papacy. This sort of piece gives important context. Speaking from personal experience, it’s often difficult to analyze the Church (the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, any church) in worldly terms, because of one’s convictions about the divine authority and function of the Church. But it is the case that piety can prevent one from seeing the all-too-human aspects of church people and church government. From the Spiegel report:

Fear is running rampant in the Curia, where the mood has rarely been this miserable. It’s as if someone had poked a stick into a beehive. Men wearing purple robes are rushing around, hectically monitoring correspondence. No one trusts anyone anymore, and some even hesitate to communicate by phone.

It all began in the accursed seventh year of the papacy of Benedict XVI, with striking parallels to the latter part of Pope John Paul II’s papacy. The same complaints about poor leadership and internal divisions are being aired outside the Vatican’s walls, while the pope himself seems exhausted and no longer able to exert his power.

Joseph Ratzinger turned 85 in April. This makes him the oldest pope in 109 years, and one of the few popes who have exercised what Benedict has called this “enormous” office at such an advanced age.

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These days, it isn’t difficult to find clerics at the Vatican who are willing to talk, provided their identities remain anonymous.

The monsignor who finds his way to a restaurant near Piazza Santa Maria in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood one evening worked closely with Ratzinger in the CDF for years. But even before the waiter arrives with water and wine, the monsignor delivers his verdict on Ratzinger’s papacy: “The pope doesn’t fully exercise his office!” In his view, instead of having things under control, they control him.

The pope isn’t interested in daily affairs at the Vatican, says the anonymous monsignor. Still, this is not exactly unprecedented, as his predecessor also neglected the Curia. While the Polish pope spent a lot of time traveling, his German successor is apparently happiest while poring over books and writing speeches. “He simply isn’t taking matters into his own hands,” the monsignor says. In essence, he adds, the pope faces a different power in Rome — and one he hasn’t take command of.

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Benedict has understood better than others what the Church’s real condition is — and how far removed it is from his ideal. His stumbling block has always been the Curia. Perhaps the real thing learned over the last seven years is just how powerlessness a pope can be.

The pope only wanted to be a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” a “servant of the truth.” Now he stands before the reality of his own mortality. For some time, he has been overcome by periods of “deep sadness,” says a source close to Benedict, though he notes that it is unclear whether this is merely sadness or genuine depression.

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In the Curia and the backrooms of the Vatican’s palaces, efforts are already underway to search for a successor. The possible outcomes of a conclave are analyzed and candidates are discussed, as was done seven years ago. Some say the next pope should be someone like Pius XII, the pope between 1939 and 1958 who was a calculating and predictable power player and Vatican insider. Or someone like Paul VI, the pope from 1963 to 1978, who paid attention to the Curia’s interests. The name of Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, has been mentioned, as has that of Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine cardinal with Italian roots. Another possible candidate is Curia Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and one of the few Vatican insiders who is adept at handling the media, politics and the public.

The Italians, with 30 votes, still form the largest bloc in a conclave. Some believe that, after more than 33 years of foreign dominance — first by a Pole and then by a German — it’s high time to elect an Italian pope. After all, proponents of the idea argue, an Italian cardinal knows the Roman Curia best. But the Italians’ prospects have become slim since Vatileaks, says Vatican expert Marco Politi. “If the scandal has exposed one thing, it is the typical Italian mess. Italians are no longer seen as papabile (capable of becoming pope). They have discredited themselves with their power struggle.”

Read the whole thing.