Today’s must-read story is an incisive piece by Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries.


“New Year, New Adventures” tweeted my old friend Greg Burke, the now-former director of the Holy See Press Office and papal spokesman, and so it is for the Letter from Rome. I’m pleased to announce that my Acton colleague Fr. Ben Johnson will regularly post my monthly screed on the Religion and Liberty Transatlantic blog. Thank you Fr. Ben!

Since my readership has now expanded beyond our Rome email list, it makes no sense to greet only “friends of Istituto Acton” or close these letters with my signature. In this age of hot takes, I’ll dispense with the formalities and get right to the point.

Even with the boom of social media, what’s new in Rome is an old story. Sandro Magister reports on the “winter campaign” of Pope Francis’s allies against the Secretariat of State that led to Burke’s resignation and other changes in Vatican communications. Sadly, it all rings true to me. Friends at Vatican Radio, L’Osservatore Romano and the Dicastery for Communication have been complaining about a lack of direction and coherence for some time now.

The same goes for changes in other offices of the Roman Curia, including my former place of employment, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which has now been subsumed into a larger structure known as the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. A well-informed cardinal recently told me that these consolidations have resulted in nothing but chaos. Morale among Vatican employees is very low and hopes for any kind of “great reform” are practically nil.

If the problems were limited to the internal workings of the Curia, they would be relatively minor for the universal Church. But with the continuing clerical sexual abuse crisis and high expectations for the February gathering of the leaders of national episcopal conference to do something about it, the dysfunction of the Vatican will likely have serious negative consequences, a heavy cross for all the faithful to bear.

Defenders of Pope Francis’s reforms tend to spread the blame for such dysfunction to the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which is certainly fair to do, especially since it may well have prematurely ended the reign of one of the Church’s greatest theologians. Add to that charge the fact that the last three popes have all been non-Italians trying to govern an ancient Italian institution. Given the disorder affecting Rome outside the Vatican, is it fair to ask if Italian ways are the source of the problems?

It is an unwelcome, harsh question, asked not only by us foreigners who love Italy but also by Italians themselves. How else to explain the massive numbers of young Italians leaving the country for better opportunities elsewhere? The left-wing and right-wing populists currently trying to govern Italy like to blame things such as the euro zone or the European Central Bank, but the issue may be much deeper and therefore resistant to an Italian Brexit (“Uscitalia”) or policy fix.

The difficulty facing the Vatican today is that the power struggles among Italians are impairing the Church’s ability to spread the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Many of the pope’s allies attack those of us who have been occasionally questioned something he has said or done, failing to realize we have been trying to help not hinder his mission. His recent letter to the US bishops, accusing them of disunity and gossip, is particularly ironic when such vices are common within the Vatican. Is it that difficult for leaders of the Catholic Church to realize that honest disagreements are not masks for the desire to exploit others?

The aforementioned cardinal also told me that only an Italian can properly understand and therefore govern Italians. If that is true, efforts to internationalize the Curia have been doomed from the beginning, and the only solution is to move the Holy See to Geneva or some other truly international but characterless place. Yet part of me still believes what Pope Benedict XVI told a group of German pilgrims just after his election about being an Italianized German, not merely because he has been here a long time but because of what Rome represents.

Italians still look to a “wise man” to solve their problems. They have not learned the truth of Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute powers corrupts absolutely.” Acton was not a reformer who wanted to destroy and eliminate papal power as such, and neither are those of us who want to see the Vatican change for the better. Like all executives, popes need to know when to limit their authority and let others speak freely. We trust that God knew what He was doing in bringing Saints Peter and Paul, who happened to disagree with each other, to Rome. Their blood became the seed of the Church we love and need today more than ever.



FYI: Reports are that Starbucks is set to open two stores in Rome in the fall of 2019 – one in the neighborhood of the Vatican Museums and the second in the center of Rome, a location still top secret. Starbucks debuted in Milan last year and is apparently doing well in what is known as the Reserve Roastery. The U.S. chain is due to open new stores there, including one at Milan’s Malpensa Airport.

I am curious to know the numbers at the Milan stores, in particular the number of Italians who frequent this café as opposed to tourists, foreigners and visitors. The typical Italian loves his espresso or cappuccino as prepared at home, at the neighorhood bar or a favorite bar near work. They are very loyal coffee drinkers and café customers.


A fascinating article that appeared in the Rome newspaper IL MESSAGERO, written by its Vatican correspondent Franca Giansoldati: This is a translation from the Italian:

Vatican City – With a never seen before, almost spectacular initiative, 20 former Latin American heads of State have taken to pen and paper to send a shocking letter to Pope Francis, substantially contesting the appeal made on Christmas Day from the basilica loggia on the situation in Venezuela and Nicaragua, an invocation to concord between the parties in conflict Urbi et Orbi Message: “This time of blessing – Pope Bergoglio said – allows Venezuela to find harmony and all the social components to work fraternally for the development of the country and to assist the weakest sections of the population.”

According to the signatories of the letter, the appeal formulated in this way risks giving a somewhat approximate political vision of the seriousness of the general situation. In the letter sent to the Pope on the initiative of IDEA (the democratic initiative of Spain and the Americas) that also appeared in various local press organs, we read: “In this way there is no emphasis on the fact that Venezuelans are the victims of oppression of a militarized narco-dictatorship, which has no qualms about systematically conciliating the rights to life, liberty and personal integrity.”

The 20 former presidents explain to Pope Francis they are aware of his concerns about the suffering suffered by both Venezuelans and Nicaraguans. “The former are victims of the oppression of a militarized narco-dictatorship (…), the second in a wave of repression that has caused 300 deaths and 2,500 injured.” In Venezuela, they add, deliberate policies aimed at a corruption are carried out in a systematic way that is scandalizing the world while people are impoverished to the point that they no longer have even medicines. What they tell the Pope is that his appeal, structured in that way, risks being understood as “a request to the oppressed peoples, who are victims to agree with their respective torturers,” particularly in the case of Venezuela, where “there it is a government that has caused 3 million refugees” and where the prospect, for 2019, is to reach 5.4 million, according to UN figures.

“The expressions of His Holiness that we know to be in good faith and dictated by his spirit as a pastor can also be interpreted in a negative way for the majority of Venezuelans and Nicaraguans. Especially when there is currently, in both countries, a political disagreement that calls for tolerance and understanding, between forces of speech and distant narratives, within a very democratic framework “where lying is elevated to a system, where there is no freedom of the press, on the contrary, where the different voices risk prison and persecution and often death as well as the American and European human rights.

Signatories include: Oscar Arias, Costa Rica; Nicolás Ardito Barletta, Panama; Enrique Bolaños, Nicaragua; Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador; Felipe Calderón, México; Rafael Ángel Calderón, Costa Rica; Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica; Fernando De la Rúa, Argentina; Vicente Fox, México; Eduardo Frei, Chile; César Gaviria T., Colombia; Osvaldo Hurtado, Ecuador; Luis Alberto Lacalle, Uruguay, Jamil Mahuad, Ecuador; Mireya Moscoso, Panama; Andrés Pastrana A., Colombia; Jorge Tuto Quiroga, Bolivia; Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, Costa Rica; Álvaro Uribe V., Colombia; Juan Carlos Wasmosy, Paraguay. The petitioners then ask for a meeting, even at the Vatican, “under favorable circumstances”.

Since the beginning of his mandate, Pope Francis has spent himself in trying to find a way to mediate the Venezuelan crisis. He invited Maduro to the Vatican, he sent people of trust to Caracas, he followed the facts with apprehension through the bishops, the nuncio but especially through Cardinal Parolin (who was nuncio to Caracas until 2013) and the Deputy Pena Parra, recently called to the Secretariat of State. The Venezuelan stall remains one of the thorns in the side. There has been no shortage of appeals for refugees who continue to flee because of poverty, uncertainty and persecution against opponents of the system.

The Venezuelan bishops yesterday, during a plenary assembly, affirmed that Maduro’s new mandate is illegitimate. In the current situation “it’s a pity – they write – that it shouts to the heavens to want to keep the power at all costs and try to prolong the bankruptcy and inefficiency of these last decades: it is morally unacceptable! God does not want the people to suffer submitting to injustice ». Hence the urgency to arrive at a solution and a change. The bishops consider the vote of 20 May to be illegitimate for the election of the President of the Republic, as well as the National Constituent Assembly imposed by the executive branch. Therefore “the intention to start a new presidential term on 10 January 2019 – the bishops continue – is illegitimate because of its origin and opens a door to the non recognition of the government because it lacks the democratic support in justice and law”.