The Roman Catholic Church is enjoying some of its best press in decades, and hundreds of thousands of alienated Catholics are returning, thanks in large part to the new, and in some cases revolutionary, leadership of Pope Francis.
But, says a new documentary by PBS’ "Frontline," “Secrets of the Vatican,” the morally wrenching controversies that threatened to destroy the church's credibility, starting about the time Pope John Paul II died in 2005, have not fully subsided. Further, the success of Francis’ papacy will depend on how quickly and thoroughly he addresses them.
"Secrets of the Vatican," airing tonight at 9 p.m. ET on most PBS stations (check local listings), takes an unsparing look at the state of the church Pope Francis inherited from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, successor to Pope John Paul II and the first head of the church to resign in 600 years.
“2012 was an annus horribilis for [Benedict],” Antony Thomas, the producer, writer and director of the film for "Frontline," told Yahoo News in an interview. “Everything was exploding. He wanted to clean up the Vatican bank. He was in a very difficult predicament all the way through.”
A horrible year on many fronts, not just with mounting evidence of financial impropriety at the Vatican bank, but also with incidents of sexual abuse by clergy spreading to more than 20 countries and, further, exposure of church hypocrisy about homosexuality. Two of Benedict’s most significant moves were to publicly re-frame the Catholic catechism — in effect, its rules of practice — to emphasize its reference to homosexuality as an “objective disorder,” laying groundwork to, among other things, remove gay clergy.
At the same time, reports emerged from Rome of a “gay mafia” inside the church that included some of its top officials, who were unafraid to wield political power and at the same time live an openly promiscuous gay lifestyle.
“There was a lot that came to light, including a man who was, as it were, providing choirboys as rent boys,” Thomas said. “What we have tried hard to do in the film is not be simplistic about this. There are a lot of people in the Vatican who are gay who are leading celibate lives, and this is difficult for them. And there are others who are promiscuous.”
In the film, a gay priest working in the Vatican describes the effects of the church’s teachings this way: “It’s like a knife in your heart, because I believe in vocation. I believe in the calling of God. I believe in Jesus. I believe He wants us to serve his people, and when a document [says], ‘Oh, you are not able,’ that is ... that is terrible. It’s painful. I hope that, one day, priests can be freely in a relationship and be good priests. That celibacy in the Church will be optional.”
"Secrets of the Vatican" also looks at the connection between the church’s requirement that its clergy must remain celibate and the high number of sexual abuse incidents among its ranks. Few were worse, or as explosive, than the case of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Roman Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ, a child abuser whose activities the church turned its back on for decades — and who also managed to father several children by at least two women.
Maciel’s crimes were irrevocably exposed by a Vatican investigation released a year after the death of Pope John Paul II. Due to be declared a saint on April 27, the pope had been an ardent supporter of Maciel and the Legionaries, which developed a reputation for vigorous fundraising, encouraging young people to be priests, and standing as a bastion against liberalism. Brought to the brink of bankruptcy by the revelations about its founder, the Legionaries denounced Maciel in February and apologized to his victims, though the group elected one of his proteges its new leader.
“Secrets of the Vatican” interviews one of Maciel’s sons, who describes the abuse he sustained at the hands of his father. Thomas said the film’s specificity about the nature of sexual abuses was necessary — because it’s still an overwhelming concern and because its seriousness may not have fully registered with the public. “How much more terrible it must be to be abused by your priest ... and the way [abusers] make the child feel guilty by saying, ‘You are the one who is going to hell if you say anything about this...’ You’re taking a little child’s deepest thoughts and trampling on them.”
And yet, Thomas said, despite interviewing dozens of people over the course of the film’s near yearlong production, he discovered something almost miraculous: Only one person said the church's multiple transgressions over the past decade caused a loss of faith. “All the people who are strong critics of what’s going on, they are all devoted Catholics, and I think that is wonderful,” Thomas said.
Further, though Pope Francis has yet to significantly address difficult issues such as abortion and contraception, he has raised the spirits and hopes of untold numbers of alienated Catholics. He has articulated a clear position on the growing economic gap between the world’s wealthiest and poorest people, an outlook he shares with U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans a papal visit on March 27.
Whether Francis will be able to tie up Benedict's loose ends by adequately reforming the Vatican bank and its Curia, which oversees its bureaucracy, is a story yet to be told. But the new pope is “absolutely taking things on,” Thomas said.
“He is so warm and spontaneous and natural. He has already achieved an enormous amount, and he hasn’t even been there a year.”