ROME — The Vatican drew aside, for a brief and puzzling moment, the thick veil that covers its internal business. It issued an extraordinary communique Monday chastising a powerful cardinal who had criticized another powerful cardinal — proof of a battle inside the Vatican walls that mirrors the anger over sex abuse raging outside them.
In just 357 words, chosen precisely to obscure much meaning, the communique still managed to lay bare disagreements over the Vatican’s handling of the sex abuse crisis; the deep generational divide inside the church; the legacy of the past two popes; and to top it off, a tantalizing whiff of who might just become the next pope and why.
On its face, the communique is a public rebuke to Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna. In April, he had implicitly criticized Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 82, the current dean of the College of Cardinals and Pope John Paul II’s last secretary of state, for blocking an investigation into an Austrian archbishop accused in the mid-1990s of abusing minors.
The communique circuitously took account of this, recounting a meeting Monday between Schonborn and Pope Benedict XVI, joined later by Sodano. Schonborn, 65, was ruled to have overreached: "It must be reiterated that, in the church, when accusations are made against a cardinal, competency falls exclusively to the pope."
But the communique pointedly did not say that Schonborn was wrong on the merits. In fact, by making the accusation against Sodano, he had defended his friend and former professor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict.
Schonborn’s "line of transparency on pedophilia was not disputed," said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily Il Foglio. "What was disputed was his attack on Cardinal Sodano."
"The point of the statement is that Sodano wanted the pope to take a public distance from Schonborn, who had accused him," Rodari said.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the statement was ultimately a vindication of Sodano or of Schonborn. The statement relived a particularly low moment for Sodano: his comments on Easter Sunday in which he was quoted as dismissing the "petty gossip" of critics of the church on sex abuse.
The communique said he had been misunderstood and had not intended to show "disrespect for victims of sex abuse" but rather was referring to Benedict’s Palm Sunday homily, where he had told the faithful not to be "intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion."
The statement also mapped out publicly a battle raging within the Vatican between those who seek reform and openness against those who want to preserve the existing power structure.