ROME — Last weekend, my wife and I visited our favorite Roman breakfast spot and chatted with the owner, an American from Buffalo, New York. He described the dismal business climate in a time without tourists: Just to break even, he said, he needs to make about $1,000 a day, but his best recent days only brought in about $140.

He’s looking at being forced to close his location near the Vatican because of mounting debt. In miniature, such loss and economic hardship is one of the mega-narratives of the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

However, it’s not the only kind of debt caused or exposed by the pandemic. Reactions around the world have also exposed a trust deficit, in that a surprisingly large share of people simply don’t believe the pronouncements of either government leaders or health authorities, and thus aren’t inclined to abide by their advice.

We’ve seen that most obviously in the debate over masks in the U.S., where, among other things, the public health director in Orange County recently resigned after a death threat and a poster depicting her as Hitler for suggesting making masks mandatory, but it’s had traces everywhere. When trust is absent, it’s difficult to mobilize a united response to anything, even a genuine calamity.

That thought comes to mind in light of three recent reminders in Italy about a similar trust deficit plaguing the Church, and especially the Vatican.

On June 22, Pietro Orlandi, the brother of a young girl named Emanuela Orlandi who went missing from their Vatican apartment in 1983 (their father was an employee of the Prefecture of the Papal Household), staged his latest sit-in to demand that the Vatican come clean.

Emanuela Orlandi is pictured in a photo that was distributed after her disappearance in 1983. The Vatican announced April 30, 2020, that the Vatican City State court officially closed its investigation into the possibility that some of the remains belonged to Orlandi, the teenage woman missing for more than 30 years. (CNS photo)

Despite the fact that Vatican officials for the last 37 years have said they don’t have any secret information on what happened to Emanuela, and have cooperated every time the family has demanded the investigation of a new lead, he remains convinced they’re hiding something. 

Orlandi said during the sit-in that he’s demanded a meeting with Pope Francis since 2013, when, in a brief greeting, the pontiff allegedly told him his sister, who would be 52 today if she’s still alive, is “already in heaven.” 

“For sure, they know what happened, but [Pope Francis] has always been indifferent about Emanuela. He’s closed, he never wanted to welcome any type of request. I’ve heard beautiful words about truth and justice from him, but I have to admit, there’s a lot of hypocrisy.” 

He told the sit-in he’s done trying to get help from Pope Francis and will make his next appeal to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

“I hope that at 93 and getting closer to the Father, he’ll have an impulse of conscience that compels him to grant a minimum of justice to this girl,” Orlandi said. 

On another front, July 3 brought the presentation of a new book by a well-known anti-mafia priest in Sicily titled “Chiesa Madre ma Cattiva Maestra?” (“Mother Church but a Bad Teacher?”). In it, Father Francesco Michele Stabile attempts to debunk a 1993 essay by one of Italy’s most celebrated screenwriters and directors, Andrea Camilleri, about a presumed contract between the mafia and the Church.

In brief, Camilleri’s assertion was that in Sicily there was an explicit deal, called a “componenda” (“compromise”), guaranteeing absolution of sins to mobsters in advance of their crimes in exchange for payments to the Church, with the amount determined by the gravity of the crime involved. Forgiveness for stealing a car, for instance, would cost less than murdering someone. 

Father Stabile argues that accusation first arose in the mid-19th century, and it was the product of a new post-unification bourgeoise in Italy attempting to justify its rejection of the Church and papal authority. He says there’s simply no evidence that any such formal “price list” existed, even though informally there certainly were many instances of Mafiosi attempting to buy favor with the Church. 

Judging from comments on Italian social media, however, this may be a tough nut to crack, since many Italian commentators still appear convinced the quid pro quo was real. 


Finally, Pope Francis recently appointed a special commissioner for the “Fabbrica di San Pietro” (“Fabric of Saint Peter”), the office that oversees St. Peter’s Basilica, after internal reports of irregularities in awarding contracts. Vatican prosecutors ordered a raid on the offices of the “Fabbrica,” seizing documents and computers. 

As it happens, the two people whose offices have been raided are laity, which immediately triggered speculation inside the Vatican that, once again, laypeople working inside the system will be made the fall guys for the failures of their clerical superiors.

From the point of view of many lay employees, there’s a time-honored pattern in the Vatican of coping with scandal by laying the blame at the feet of laity, thereby insulating the ultimate authorities, the archbishops and cardinals who approved (and may have instigated) the operation, from responsibility.

As a result, there’s strong internal skepticism when it comes to the course of Vatican justice.

Perhaps all three of these trust deficits are unmerited. Perhaps the Orlandis are simply a family clinging desperately to hope, needing to believe the Vatican knows the truth; perhaps Stabile is right that the idea of an explicit fee-for-service deal between the Church and the mob was just 19th-century political propaganda; and perhaps the skeptics are wrong about the investigation of the “Fabbrica” and its clerical authorities — Italian Cardinal Angelo Comastri and Bishop Vittorio Lanzani — will be part of the suspect pool after all.

Perhaps, too, there’s simply too much water under the bridge for the Vatican to ever truly pay off its trust deficit, especially here in Italy, where living cheek by jowl with the clerical system for centuries can’t help but have produced a deep reservoir of cynicism.

Still, if the coronavirus has taught us anything, part of the lesson has to be about the dangers of losing public trust, and the critical importance, therefore, of meaning it when leaders pledge a new era of transparency.