China dragged into 'kill the pope' plot

2012-02-23Asia Times

BEIJING - The story is only marginally about China. It has more to do with the many troubles inside the Catholic Church, the largest and most widespread unitary religion in the world, a faith strongly institutionalized and very prominent even outside the large circle of its over one billion followers - something that makes the pope, if not the most powerful man on Earth, certainly the most influential.

On February 10, an Italian left-wing daily, Il fatto quotidiano, leaked an internal document, which purportedly revealed a plot to kill Pope Benedict XVI in November. The plan was reportedly hatched by a senior cardinal, Paolo Romeo, during a short trip to China in November, in cahoots with another cardinal, Angelo Scola, a man widely considered "papabile", likely to become the next pope.

The plan was revealed to the pope by yet another cardinal, Dario Castrillon Hojos, who had been until recently prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, one of the most important "ministries" of the Church. Castrillon revealed it by passing the pope a letter "written in German". Castrillon had been head of the bishops of Colombia at the time when Romeo was nuncio (Vatican ambassador) there.

The story was so wild that after a few hours of shock even the Italian press, often famished for unreasonable scandals and secretive conspiracy theories, dropped it. There was a grain of truth in the story: Romeo did come to China in November, as he admitted in a note. That grain is the only known point in the alleged plot, which seems taken straight from a Dan Brown novel or Machiavellian theory. The rest is dusky.

It is not sure whether Castrillon actually informed the pope. Although the Italian daily claimed to possess the original letter to the pope with all the relevant stamps, it would not be the first time a forgery was created all or in part to lend credence to lies. But in theory, the letter is possible.

The rest is simply technically impossible. Romeo could have not gone to China without briefing the pope and Cardinal Tarciso Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, before and after the trip. If during the trip he spoke of a plot to the Chinese, as the daily wrote, he would have reported it to the pope.

Or, as is far more likely, he never talked of any plot with anybody. If he didn't refer about something he learned or talked about in China, Romeo would have lied to the pope, a very serious thing for a cardinal. But the pope still fully trusts Romeo, as the pope has not in the least reprimanded him, a sign that the pope believes the cardinal behaved properly.

Moreover, if there were a plot, why go to China to talk about it? Wouldn't it have been more convenient to chat about it in Italy?

Unless somebody were to imply that the Chinese may have a hand in this plot, just like the Soviets were behind the attempt on Polish Pope Karol Wojtyla in 1981. But that was during the Cold War, when a Polish pope was something that could de facto help to undermine the Soviet empire, and therefore it was more than reasonable to expect Soviet action.

In China, the relative number of Catholics is decreasing, from 1% of the population in 1949 to about 0.6% presently; they have caused no great trouble, and the Chinese authorities can see that the Vatican now is not confrontational with the government, as proved by the 2007 letter to the Chinese from Pope Benedict. Moreover, the Church showed it can work with regimes that are still officially communist, like those in Cuba or Vietnam.

The real problem is that, while China is important to the Vatican as the new frontier of the faith, the Vatican is almost irrelevant to Chinese politics, as Catholics in China are too few and too tame. So there is no urge in Beijing to improve the situation.

Conversely, there is the risk that normalizing relations could encourage more Chinese to convert to Catholicism. The Chinese government still has a lot of moral authority over the Chinese people, and the normalization of ties would be seen as a government green light to Catholic conversions, something that could bring unpredictable consequences.

Then why should Beijing meddle or even listen to wild notions of a plot on the pope when the best political solution would be to simply ignore the issue?

But the alleged revelations apparently created some real consequences. They dragged China's name into a conspiracy theory about a plot to kill the pope, something that could further smear the Chinese image, adding to depictions of China as a religious persecutor and an offender of human rights.

Yet this is almost collateral damage. The real heart of the problem is that the revelations portrayed Romeo and Scola as conspirators, Castrillon as a fool ready to give credit to all sweeping rumors and theories, and Bertone as incapable of keeping his house in order, with documents leaking left and right. In the middle, the pope seems some kind of puppet, subject to all sorts of pushes and winds.

This scandal is the latest in a string of events. According to other documents leaked to the press in recent weeks, the Vatican's new ambassador to the US, Carlo Maria Vigano, was at the center of allegations of corruption at the Holy See just before the pope sent him to Washington. He possibly uncovered a scandal, and for this was sent away.

The Vatican seems a house of cards ready to be blown away. Its leaders are incapable - either too smart or too stupid - of keeping control, while the base is rotting with the still-simmering scandal over pedophile priests. The core difficulty is with the pope, whose name was already dragged into the pedophile scandal and now is in the middle of this, with the letter written in German.

Conspiracy for conspiracy, one could wonder who wants to undermine the church now - and why? Definitely, it looks as if the grand maneuvers ahead of the next conclave (the traditional meeting electing the pope) are underway, and someone is trying to remove some powerful candidates, or in the meantime cut down some commanding presences in the Holy See and put the church and the papacy under heavy strain. This week the pope elected 22 new cardinals who will eventually elect his successor.

This is the stuff of old history, for sure. For centuries the Vatican, because of its importance, cradled conspiracies, but now things are possibly even more complicated as there are many new elements to factor in - the world is changing very quickly, and the church is trying to find a new dimension to its global presence. Then naturally, because of its immense influence, many forces may want to have a hand in the future direction of this institution. It would be strange otherwise.

This, in turn, underscores the centrality of Rome, which has crucial ties with the many faces of the West, the Muslim world, and the new rising Asia. Then if so, at the end of it, the villains of this story look like the real heroes, trying to ferry the church into the future in very choppy waters. It is perhaps the heart of it, and why we could well see even more scandals, true or false, welling up from Rome in the next months or even weeks.  (2012-02-23 Asia Times)


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