The Vatican's Most Dashing Man, But Can Don Giorgio Stay Among Its Most Powerful?

He was Benedict XVI's right-hand man, and now runs daily operations for Francis, but it's still not clear where German-born Georg Ganswein fits into other power struggles in Rome.

Dashing and devout Georg Gänswein
Dashing and devout Georg Gänswein
Gernot Facius and Lucas Wiegelmann

VATICAN CITY - In Nov. 2011 the press got wind of the fact that the Catholic Church in Germany owned Weltbild, a publishing company that had some 2,500 erotic and esoteric titles in its range.

Shortly after the story broke, a memo in Italian by the former Pope’s private secretary, German-born Georg Gänswein, read: "The Holy Father has decided this needs to be dealt with immediately." That same November, the German bishops announced their intention to sell the company “without delay.”

Gänswein’s memo is part of the documents released publicly in conjunction with the "Vatileaks" scandal. It is how most of the public and even many insiders learned of Gänswein’s extraordinary position within the church. Many of the letters written to the Vatican by priests the world over weren’t addressed to the pope but to Monsignore Gänswein.

The fact that Gänswein wasn’t able to protect his mentor Pope Benedict XVI from the most embarrassing scandal in recent church history is the biggest setback in his church career. Heavy speculation is still swirling with regard to the Vatileaks scandal, however it is said that some Vatican string-pullers set out to hurt Gänswein deliberately because he had become far too powerful for their taste.

There is no doubt about the fact that, after Benedict XVI, Georg Gänswein was the most influential man in the Catholic Church.

And it’s for just that reason that the 56-year-old now presents such an awkward dilemma, particularly as not long before his retirement Pope Benedict made him archbishop and prefect of the Pontifical Household – a position that means he’s responsible for Pope Francis’s official agenda, audiences and state visits.

Gänswein remains the former pope’s private secretary, however, and he was to move into the former pope’s quarters. Yet a situation where he would continue to go back and forth between pope and pope emeritus as he is presently doing is hardly imaginable.

So something’s got to happen with "Don Giorgio," as he is known – half admiringly, half mockingly – in church circles. But what?

Three possibilities can be envisaged: he gets a new job in Rome; he’s sent back to Germany to head an archdiocese; or he becomes a papal nuncio – a Vatican diplomat with ambassadorial status – in some prestigious world capital. In Germany the pros and cons of these options have been the stuff of discussion for weeks, particularly behind the scenes among church hierarchy. But many other folks are interested too – it’s what separates Gänswein from the faceless run-of-the-mill Vatican apparatchiks.

Almost became a monk

And what holds their interest is this – Gänswein is cool. Because he’s so exceptionally good-looking. Because of the effortless way he skis and plays tennis. Because he always looked so smooth dealing with Benedict’s visitors: Gänswein with German soccer great Franz Beckenbauer, Gänswein with Obama, Gänswein with Merkel.

His blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, and elegant body inspired Italian fashion designer Donatella Versace to design a menswear collection after him. The Jan. 2013 issue of the Italian Vanity Fair features his face on the cover and the words: “It’s not a sin to be gorgeous.”

Yet Gänswein has more to him than just being the Vatican’s George Clooney. He owes his ascension to the top of the church more to his intelligence than his looks. He comes from a village called Riedern am Wald in the Black Forest, in southwestern Germany. After graduating high school Gänswein attended a seminary in Freiburg and spent his first year abroad in Rome. His brainy doctoral thesis on church law earned a “summa cum laude.” He flirted with the idea of joining the Carthusians, an order of enclosed monastics.

But instead of becoming a monk, he became Joseph Ratzinger’s assistant and by 2005 was ensconced in the Apostolic Palace in Rome: Benedict on the third floor, Gänswein a half-floor above him. Such is the close relation between the two men that Gänswein’s new coat of arms features a reference to his patron – St. George on one half, and Benedict XVI’s coat of arms on the other.

Church liberals don’t like Gänswein because of his close connection to Benedict, and because he’s a conservative with a penchant for the traditional. In the Italian paper Il Sole/24 Ore, famous writer Giancarlo Zizola even linked him to the archconservative Society of Saint Pius X. Some members of the German Church hierarchy view Gänswein as a ruthless careerist, and some also resent his interference in German Church matters from Rome, like some papal watchdog. The Weltbild scandal is a case in point.

Against that background, nominating Gänswein to a high position in the German Church – assuming he’s even interested – opens up the question of whether or not these differences could be settled. Another issue is finding an archdiocese important enough for him, and while the archdiocese of Cologne would fit the bill – and Archbishop Cardinal Joachim Meisner is approaching 80 and thinking of retirement – according to Die Welt’s information the incumbent favors another as successor, and the 1929 Prussian Concordat would make it difficult although not entirely impossible for the Vatican to impose its own candidate.

Right now it looks as if Pope Francis will keep Don Giorgio in Rome, where he may well eventually make some changes in Curia staffing. That would open up the option of making Georg Gänswein prefect of one of the nine congregations in the Roman Curia. After that, sooner or later, Gänswein can expect to be made a cardinal. The only rank higher than that is pope.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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