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From the September, 2005
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Vatican Window by Michael P. Orsi

Vatican Window

All the Pope’s Men by John L. Allen, Jr.

All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Works
Doubleday, 2004
(378 pages, $24.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Michael P. Orsi

In All the Pope’s Men, the National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent provides an insightful analysis of how the Vatican operates, views the world, and sees its role as a moral entity. Written mainly in response to the major tensions that surfaced between the Catholic Church in the United States and the Vatican regarding the handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the war in Iraq, the book begins by explaining who and what is the Vatican and then in the last third summarizes both events, as well as the concepts both sides used to address the issues.

Allen shows that, far from being the monolith pictured in the Western mind, among its various offices there exist different opinions and approaches to certain issues. For example, there was a public disagreement between then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who leads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the relationship between the local and the universal Church. The Papal Master of Ceremonies favors liturgical enculturation, which would (for example) allow for dance in the liturgy, while the Prefect for the Congregation for the Divine Worship issued guidelines curtailing such practices.

Allen also provides an outline of the types of documents emanating from the Vatican and the level of importance attached to each, a distinction often misunderstood by the media and even by Catholics. But his greatest contribution for understanding the ecclesiastical bureaucracy is his insight into the personalities of the men and women who work in the Vatican.

Exemplary Workers

The reader may be surprised by Allen’s evaluation of the people who work in the Vatican. Their sense of duty to the Catholic Church and loyalty to the Pope are, he says, for the most part exemplary, and certainly a far cry from the conniving and power-hungry image of Vatican bureaucrats portrayed by the popular media.

He explains that the theology and psychology from which they operate is based on a hierarchical authority they believe to be divinely established. This guides their decision making and determines their response to particular acts of poor judgment. Allen believes that Americans, Catholic and non-Catholics alike, may not understand the Vatican’s methods because they are so unlike our pragmatic corporate business model, which encourages creative problem solving with an eye to the bottom line.

He explains how church law is based on a different model than Anglo-Saxon law. The Vatican’s psychology more or less reflects Italian culture, which sees law as an expression of a human ideal, “a description of a perfect state of affairs,” but realizes that most people will fall short. Anglo-Saxon law reflects what people actually do and represents minimum infringements on personal liberty. Church law and the solutions it offers for infractions, such as the Sacrament of Penance (commonly known as Confession), are sympathetic to human weakness and failures in not living up to the ideal.

Cardinal Law’s failures in addressing Boston’s priest pedophile scandal provide a case in point, Allen argues. The theological bond that exists between a priest and his bishop, as well as the gospel values of forgiveness and redemption, he says, drove the cardinal’s attitude toward the offending clergy. The Vatican was reluctant to censure Law because the familial bond between a bishop and his diocese requires that the bishop, like a father of a family, stay to clean up the mess and put his household back in order.

All the Pope’s Men can aid anyone trying to understand a culture that is in many ways different from our own. It can also answer some very practical questions, like, how does the Vatican operate, how much money does it have, and how much money do its employees make? But most of all, it is a book that looks more deeply into the ministry of a church that is served by fallible humans whose work is circumscribed but also enhanced by 2,000 years of tradition, who often act with wisdom and, more often than one would think, sanctity.


Michael P. Orsi is a Catholic priest and a Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law.

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