In Other Words

The Pope’s Prognosticator

The Pope’s Prognosticator

L’espresso, Issue 34, September 1, Rome

Dissent is by no means anathema to Catholic thinking. But influential prelates, unlike politicians, are shy when it comes to criticizing the powers that be. Because politics inside the Vatican is not practiced out in the open, the job of discerning (or guessing) what’s on the mind of Catholic officialdom has become a highly specialized field, limited to a select group of veteran reporters, academics, and analysts known as vaticanisti. These highly skilled navigators of the Roman Curia — one of the world’s most nebulous bureaucracies — do not merely know which department does what. They also boast an understanding of the Vatican’s inner life, keeping tabs on the major players and analyzing the intricacies of their relations with the same attention a die-hard baseball fan might show to batting statistics.

Among the most reliable and revered vaticanisti is Sandro Magister, who covers the Vatican for L’espresso, an influential Italian newsweekly magazine with more than 600,000 readers. Magister is well regarded for both his acuity and his prolificacy. In addition to his print coverage, he writes a daily blog and a biweekly column for his Web site, www.chiesa.espressonline.it. Although L’espresso is generally regarded as an organ of Italy’s church-wary left (its rival is Panorama, a newsweekly owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire), Magister stands out because he typically leans more to the right in his editorial musings. His columns consistently advocate a muscular papacy that practices realpolitik abroad. He defends Catholicism’s identity from precisely the same cultural and political influences that define L’espresso: support for abortion rights, stem-cell research, religious pluralism, and a strict separation between church and state.

What also sets Magister apart from the rest of the field is his ability to discern who, alongside the pope, is making his influence felt inside the Vatican. A professor of contemporary church history at the University of Urbino, Magister brings the dedication and expertise of a scholar to his beat, combing the Vatican for information the same way academics search for obscure texts. As with many Italian journalists, Magister generally leaves his sourcing to the reader’s imagination. But his scoops are both hard-hitting and accurate — a rare combination in a field that lends itself to rampant speculation. Such insight proved indispensable in the final years of John Paul II’s papacy, when doubts flourished as to who exactly was guiding the Roman Catholic ship of state.

Three years before John Paul died, Magister became one of the first to train his sights on the pope’s trusted theological advisor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. At the time, Ratzinger’s name had not yet surfaced on any lists of the papabili — or pope-hopeful. But Magister noted that Ratzinger was already making his voice heard on a number of issues that were beyond the scope of his office. If John Paul’s illness had created a power vacuum, his German aide was stepping forward to fill it. Among other moves, Ratzinger produced a sociological treatise on the role of women; he called Turkey unfit for membership in the European Union; he determined that Catholic politicians who support laws contrary to church doctrine, such as those protecting abortion rights, were unfit to receive communion. (Ratzinger expressed this decision in a confidential 2004 memo to the U.S. bishops’ conference that Magister made public, delivering a blow to Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s presidential prospects.) And, of course, Magister proved his prescience last spring when John Paul passed away and Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

The Vatican usually goes to great lengths to reassure Catholics and the world at large that what seems like a shift in policy from one pope to the next is, in fact, a sign of deeper continuity. Challenging this premise is pretty much the bread and butter of any qualified vaticanista, and in this regard, Magister is no exception. In the first few months of Benedict’s reign, Magister predicted the pope would take a skeptical approach to Islam, highlighting his decision to decline an invitation from representatives of Germany’s Muslim community to visit a local mosque. Magister’s instincts were confirmed at last summer’s World Youth Day summit, when Benedict met with Muslim leaders on more neutral ground and bluntly challenged them to reject any interpretation of Islam that inspires terrorism. "Before this occasion in Cologne," Magister wrote in the September 1 issue of L’espresso, "no pope had ever been so explicit and hard-hitting in facing the question of terrorism on a personal level with representatives of the Islamic community."

So far, the pope has not identified any specific Islamic groups or organizations who pose a threat to Christian Europe. Where Benedict stops short, Magister intervenes to finish the sentence. "His prudence is understandable," Magister wrote online on August 18. "Cologne and Munich — where Joseph Ratzinger was archbishop from 1977 to 1981 — are the cities in which the Muslim Brotherhood, which has for decades been the main ideological and organizational source of radical Islam in the world, has gained control of most of the mosques and of active Islam in Germany and in Europe." Benedict might be shackled by the limitations of diplomacy, but Magister is free to name names.

Reading the mind of a pope is risky business. As Magister himself has demonstrated, even papal policy isn’t absolute. Benedict was once the consummate Vatican insider, wielding his influence in an opaque manner. Now that he has become the public face of Catholicism’s 1.2 billion faithful, any shift in his opinions will have more direct ramifications. Given his track record, Magister will be among the first to connect those dots.