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Papal puzzle

06 December 2013

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LEAKS, financial improprieties, and the machinations of a "gay lobby". Not since the sudden death of Pope John Paul I has there been such extravagant gossip surrounding the inner workings of the Vatican. Last Thursday, The Report (Radio 4) got in on the act, with an investigation by Mark Dowd into the real reason for Pope Benedict's resignation. Why did the ageing Pope feel that he did not have enough energy for the role; and what were the challenges that were sapping that energy?

The three elements to this investigation might be said to form a template for modern-day conspiracy theories. There was chaos in the Vatican, with leaks springing every day - most of which found their way into a book by a journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi. There were vested financial interests, intent on preserving the unregulated workings of the Vatican Bank. And then there was the personal intrigue: the network of homosexuals within the Vatican, which, we were told, controls access to patronage.

Of the three, the latter was most thinly supported by Dowd's documentary; while the case as a whole comes up against one fundamental question. If Benedict was forced to resign, who was supposed to benefit? By electing a cardinal from outside the Vatican as Benedict's successor - a successor showing every intention of reforming these moribund practices - the intransigent forces of conservatism appear to have made a massive miscalculation. Or did Pope Benedict perform a selflessly strategic act that blindsided his opponents?

Whatever the answer, what this story plays to is our enthusiasm for stories of decadence and reform, of decay and renovation.

Cardinal Francis Arinze described the event with charm, and an innate sense of the dramatic. He also laughingly admitted to reading the "Vatileaks" reports, saying that while he disapproved of the leaking, he felt that something good had come out of them. "God can write straight on crooked lines," was how he put it.

Perhaps this is the phrase that apologists for the new Universal Credit scheme will use if it all comes tumbling down. Living With New Welfare (Radio 4, Monday of last week) suggested that the stresses predicted by opponents of the scheme were already being experienced by those involved in the pilot schemes running in places such as Torfaen, South Wales.

Felicity Evans interviewed six people who are trying to cope with the housing-benefit element of the reformed system, whereby rent money is paid to the benefit claimant rather than to the social-housing landlords. The result in Torfaen was a sharp rise in arrears - a problem that was alleviated only when those people having the difficulties were brought off the pilot scheme.

If these are crooked lines, then the straight message - one that is hard to dispute - is that it is generally a good thing for people to feel financially empowered. But, as Evans so eloquently put it, the big moral and political arguments are going to happen a long way away from the people who are affected most seriously. In temporarily empowering those people through this programme, Evans has done them a great service.

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