Book review: A keyhole on the Vatican

Book Review Rupert Watson The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church, by John Thavis. Penguin. John Thavis, recently…

Book review: A keyhole on the Vatican Archdiocese of WellingtonBook Review

Rupert Watson

The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church, by John Thavis. Penguin.

John Thavis, recently retired as the chief of the Rome bureau of the Catholic News Service, has written a riveting account that aptly lives up to its subtitle.

The book sheds light on how the Vatican acts as the lynch pin and centre of the Catholic faith and how the differing emphases of the modern papacies reflect the mood and tempo of the Church – outgoing connections with other faiths and contemporary issues in the time of the exuberant John Paul II; containment and straightening the course, indeed holding back the horses, with the restrained and intellectual Benedict XVI.

The Vatican is a legitimate concern of the news media, which tends to treat it like any other monarchy, government or corporate giant. And because media these days want stories that will run and get attention, inevitably controversy is a sought-after commodity.

Thavis’s accounts of various travels on the papal plane are entertaining, but also reveal a certain other-worldliness that has led to various media storms erupting, demonstrating his main point: that the Vatican is not a monolithic entity with a tightly controlled party line, but a melting pot of viewpoints coupled with some naivety on how to use modern media and communications strategies.

It is also a fascinating maze of departmental interests and traditions that often go their own sweet way, because it’s just ‘always been like that.’

He unflinchingly covers some of the more serious scandals of recent times, particularly the issue of sexual abuse by priests and the lack of action by their bishops. He discusses the question of homosexuality and the priesthood and the recently reaffirmed directive not to choose homosexuals (or, to be more specific, those ‘presenting with deep-seated homosexual tendencies’) as seminarians.

Responding to a demand from Pope Pius XII to lessen the yoke he placed on Catholics, Joseph Stalin famously asked ‘and how many divisions has the Pope?’ But the Vatican’s has been a more subtle strength.

Yet as with Kremlinology, where experts closely studied the nuances of Soviet-era policy pronouncements looking for slight hints of shifts or trends, Vaticanology does the same, paying close attention to the sub-clauses or parentheses of encyclicals or pastoral letters, looking for shifts in some of the Church’s major flashpoint positions, such as HIV/Aids or birth control.

One of the best aspects of the book is its love of, and attention to, history. There is a goldmine here, from the discovery of extraordinary Roman tombs during the construction of an underground car park, and the ensuing battle between the administration and Vatican archaeologists and museum staff, to the utterly absorbing story of whether Pius XII, who was actually brought up in the Vatican, worked to defend the Jewish victims of Nazi terror.
Thavis believes that while a minority of Vatican staff and groups have put their interests and careers first and brought disrepute to the Church, the vast majority of the 3000 or so people who work away in the environs of St Peter’s are committed to their role in enhancing the Church as the Body of Christ.

He tells wonderful stories of the papal attendants, the bell ringers, the workers who keep the place going, the Swiss guards, and the religious staff of the various departments who would pass on the news and/or gossip over an espresso, or in a whisper while passing on their way through St Peter’s Square.
Now there is a new pope, with a new back story. Maybe John Thavis wishes he had stayed on for the next instalment – it could be an exciting one.

But there’s a time we all have to say enough and hand over to the new generation.

The Vatican Diaries is available from Pinnacle Books, for $30 plus shipping. Visit or  call 0800 888 004.