VATICAN CITY If evidence was ever needed that the next pope must urgently overhaul the powerful Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia, the scandal over Pope Benedict XVI's private papers is Exhibit A.
The pope's own butler stole sensitive internal letters to the pontiff and passed them off to a journalist, who then published them in a blockbuster book. The butler did it, he admitted himself, to expose the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican's frescoed halls that he believed was hidden from Benedict by those who were supposed to serve him.
And if that original sin weren't enough, the content of the leaks confirmed that the next pope has a very messy house to clean up. The letters and memos exposed petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. The dirt ranged from the awarding of Vatican contracts to a plot, purportedly orchestrated by senior Vatican officials, to out a prominent Catholic newspaper editor as gay.
Ordinary Catholics might not think that dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace has any effect on their lives, but it does: The Curia makes decisions on everything from church closings to marriage annulments to the disciplining of pedophile priests. Papal politics plays into the prayers the faithful say at Mass since missal translations are decided by committee in Rome. Donations the faithful make each year for the pope are held by a Vatican bank whose lack of financial transparency fueled bitter internal debate.
And so after 35 years under two "scholar" popes who paid scant attention to the internal governance of the Catholic Church, a chorus is growing that the next pontiff must have a solid track record managing a complicated bureaucracy. Cardinals who will vote in next month's conclave are openly talking about the need for reform, particularly given the dysfunction exposed by the scandal.
"It has to be attended to," said Chicago Cardinal Francis George. With typical understatement, he called the leaks scandal "a novel event for us."
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German who retired in 2010 as the head of the Vatican's ecumenical office, said the Curia must adapt itself to the 21st century.
"There needs to be more coordination between the offices, more collegiality and communication," he told Corriere della Sera. "Often the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."
Sandro Magister, the Vatican analyst who most closely follows the comings, goings and internecine feuds of Vatican officials, said the "disaster" of governance began unfolding in the 1980s, in the early years of Pope John Paul II's pontificate.
"John Paul II was completely disinterested in the Curia; his vision was completely directed to the outside," Magister said in an interview. "He allowed a proliferation of feuds, small centers of power that fought among themselves with much ambition, careerism and betrayals."
"This accumulated and ruined it for the next pope," he said.
Benedict was well aware of the problems, having spent nearly a quarter-century in the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But he never entered into the Vatican's political fray as a cardinal and as pope left it to his No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to do the job.
"Some of his choices were shown to be counterproductive," Magister said. "Cardinal Bertone didn't produce the results that Benedict XVI had hoped for."
Bertone himself became a lightning rod for division within the Curia. A canonist, he had no diplomatic experience coming into the job, and the main battle lines drawn in the Curia today come down to his loyalists and those still loyal to his predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Taken as a whole, the leaked documents seemed aimed at undermining Bertone.
To be fair, the Vatican under Benedict made great strides on some internal governance fronts: the pope insisted on greater financial transparency, and the Vatican passed a key European anti-money laundering test last summer. He insisted on a Vatican trial, open to journalists, for the butler who betrayed him. And as cardinal, after priestly sex abuse cases bounced for years among Vatican offices, the former Joseph Ratzinger took them over himself in 2001.
But some analysts speculate that the revelations from the leaks at the very least accelerated Benedict's decision to resign. In early 2012, he appointed three trusted cardinals to investigate beyond the criminal case involving his butler. They interviewed widely inside the Curia and out and delivered their final report in December. Its contents are sealed, though speculation is rife that the cardinals minced no words in revealing the true nature of the Curia.
Benedict's biographer, Peter Seewald, asked Benedict in August how badly the scandal had affected him. He replied that he was not falling into "desperation or world-weariness," yet admitted the leaks scandal "is simply incomprehensible to me," according to a recent article Seewald penned for the German magazine Focus.