Books by Thavis, John

Thavis, John. The Vatican Diaries. New York: Viking, 2013. ISBN 978-0-670-02671-5.
Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that:

…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Imagine a bureaucracy in which the Iron Law has been working inexorably since the Roman Empire.

The author has covered the Vatican for the Catholic News Service for the last thirty years. He has travelled with popes and other Vatican officials to more than sixty countries and, developing his own sources within a Vatican which is simultaneously opaque to an almost medieval level in its public face, yet leaks like a sieve as factions try to enlist journalists in advancing their agendas. In this book he uses his access to provide a candid look inside the Vatican, at a time when the church is in transition and crisis.

He begins with a peek inside the mechanics of the conclave which chose Pope Benedict XVI: from how the black or white smoke is made to how the message indicating the selection of a new pontiff is communicated (or not) to the person responsible for ringing the bell to announce the event to the crowds thronging St Peter's Square.

There is a great deal of description, bordering on gonzo, of the reality of covering papal visits to various countries: in summary, much of what you read from reporters accredited to the Vatican comes from their watching events on television, just as you can do yourself.

The author does not shy from controversy. He digs deeply into the sexual abuse scandals and cover-up which rocked the church, the revelations about the founder of the Legion of Christ, the struggle between then traditionalists of the Society of St Pius X and supporters of the Vatican II reforms in Rome, and the battle over the beatification of Pope Pius XII. On the lighter side, we encounter the custodians of Latin, including the Vatican Bank ATM which displays its instructions in Latin: “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundum cognoscas rationem”.

This is an enlightening look inside one of the most influential, yet least understood, institutions in what remains of Western civilisation. On the event of the announcement of the selection of Pope Francis, James Lileks wrote:

…if you'd turned the sound down on the set and shown the picture to Julius Cæsar, he would have smiled broadly. For the wrong reasons, of course—his order did not survive in its specific shape, but in another sense it did. The architecture, the crowds, the unveiling would have been unmistakable to someone from Cæsar's time. They would have known exactly what was going on.

Indeed—the Vatican gets ceremony. What is clear from this book is that it doesn't get public relations in an age where the dissemination of information cannot be controlled, and that words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, even if a “revised and updated” transcript of them is issued subsequently by the bureaucracy.

In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the hardcover print edition which are completely useless since the Kindle edition does not contain real page numbers.

March 2013 Permalink