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  • Conclave secrecy: A two-edged sword

         Cardinals in 'general congregations' of 2005

    Conclave secrecy cuts both ways. It guarantees that cardinals will have the absolute privacy needed to select a new pope without outside pressure. But it also creates a news vacuum that journalists are happy to fill with speculation, scenarios and outright fantasy.

    As the world prepares for Pope Benedict’s resignation, there are signs that some at the Vatican are trying to lift the veil of secrecy that has covered some of the proceedings – not the actual vote inside the Sistine Chapel, but the daily meetings cardinals will have in the days leading up to the balloting.

    In the past, these pre-conclave meetings, called “general congregations,” have sometimes been subject to the secrecy rule, too.

    The conclave rule book, a 1996 apostolic letter called “Universi Dominici Gregis,” says cardinals “are forbidden to reveal to any other person, directly or indirectly, information about the voting and about matters discussed or decided concerning the election of the Pope in the meetings of Cardinals, both before and during the time of the election.” (my emphasis)

    In 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who chaired the general congregations, was said to have exhorted cardinals on multiple occasions not to give interviews about the content of these meetings.

    Nevertheless, this time around sources have said that senior Vatican officials are considering whether it may be possible to take a more flexible approach to the general congregations.

    The idea would be to provide journalists with the major themes discussed in these meetings, and perhaps summaries of interventions. No decision has yet been made, and some believe it might not be determined until the cardinals begin the meetings March 1.

    Giving the world a glimpse into the general congregations would make sense on many levels. If there’s an information blackout, Catholics around the world would have no clear idea about what’s on the cardinals’ minds as they prepare to enter the conclave, about the different priorities being discussed and about who’s doing the talking.

    As a result, people can imagine whatever they want – and they often imagine that cardinals are using these encounters to trade votes, outmaneuver opponents and make back-room deals.

    As reported below, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, last week blasted what he called the efforts by some journalists to “sow confusion and to discredit the Church and its governance, making recourse to old tools, such as gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander.”

    The spokesman has a point: some recent reporting on this unusual papal transition, especially in the Italian press, has been reckless and unreliable.

    But the best way to lay this kind of speculation to rest would be to pull the curtain back on the cardinals’ discussions when they arrive in Rome.

    Rules cover secrecy as well as vote-trading

    How seriously does the Vatican take breaches of conclave rules?

    The word “excommunication” says it all.

    There’s excommunication for breaking the rule of secrecy – which by the way covers words, signals or any other form of communication, and applies to the voting and the discussions carried out before and during the conclave.

    The punishment of excommunication also awaits cardinals who engage in simony – the buying and selling of votes – or who engage in vote-trading agreements, such as promises to swing a bloc of votes to a certain candidate at some point in the conclave.

    Any cardinal who tries to interfere with or influence the conclave on behalf of a civil authority will find himself excommunicated, too.

    Outsiders often imagine the politicking of a papal conclave as an ecclesial version of the movie “Lincoln,” where pressure tactics, promises and arm-twisting featured prominently ahead of a crucial vote.

    The conclave rule book was written by Pope John Paul II and covers just about every kind of possible breach of the conclave’s integrity. It even called for technicians to sweep the conclave area for bugging or communication devices.

    One interesting section of the document directs the cardinals to forget about personal relationships and keep their eye on only one thing – the good of the church -- as they prepare to vote:

    “I earnestly exhort the Cardinal electors not to allow themselves to be guided, in choosing the Pope, by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favor or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity. “

    A thin partition

    In a strange juxtaposition, cardinals and journalists are going to be working in the same building during the pre-conclave discussion period. An auxiliary Vatican press office is being set up in the atrium of the Paul VI Auditorium to handle the media overflow; the cardinals, meanwhile, will hold their general congregations on the second floor of the auditorium.

    Lest the press and the prelates mingle, the Vatican has created a separate entrance for reporters and erected a temporary partition so that journalists are hidden from the cardinals as they enter and exit the building.

  • Scottish cardinal resigns in wake of allegations of sexual impropriety

    UPDATE: In the wake of accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior, Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien resigned today as archbishop Edinburgh, and said he does not plan to come to Rome for the March conclave to avoid creating a media diversion during the election of a new pope.

    The Vatican said yesterday that Pope Benedict has been informed about allegations that the cardinal had engaged in inappropriate sexual acts, and was deciding what to do about it.

    The allegations, which date to the 1980s, came to light in newspaper reports today in Great Britain. Cardinal O’Brien was among the cardinals expected to arrive in Rome at the end of next week for Pope Benedict’s resignation and an upcoming conclave.

    “The pope is informed about the problem and the issue is now in his hands,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Sunday.

    Cardinal O’Brien, 74, the archbishop of Edinburgh, has denied the allegations, which were reported to the Vatican by three priests and a former priest. According to British press reports, the complainants contacted the papal nuncio in Britain the week before Pope Benedict announced his resignation.

    The press reports said the allegations concerned inappropriate contact and approaches when O’Brien was a seminary rector in Aberdeen some 30 years ago.

    The issue of sex abuse has already prompted criticism of U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony, after he announced he intended to come to Rome to participate in the upcoming conclave. Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, recently had limits placed on his public role in the archdiocese for failing to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

    The allegations against Cardinal O'Brien are of a different nature -- inappropriate sexual acts, not covering up alleged abuse -- and the consequences could be different, too. 

    Experts I spoke with said a pope can remove a cardinal from the College of Cardinals for grave reasons, but added that in this case the cardinal has contested the accusations, and it's unlikely that a serious investigation could be completed before papal resignation on Feb. 28.

  • From Germany with love

         Germans were among those saying goodbye to the pope

    Among the more than 100,000 people who filled St. Peter's Square to say goodbye to Pope Benedict today were pilgrims from Germany, including these two women who flew down to Rome for the day with a homemade banner reading: "Holy Father, we love you."

    Birgit Marschall, a 49-year-old Catholic, said she made the banner as a token of appreciation.

    "I just want to say goodbye and thank him, and assure him of our prayers. I'm thankful for every word he gave us," she said. She arrived in the square early and unfurled her banner right below the pope's window.

    Speaking in German at his noon blessing, the pope seemed to be on the same wavelength. "I thank you all for the signs of closeness and affection, and especially for your prayers," he said.

    Appearing at his final Sunday blessing, Pope Benedict referred indirectly to his retirement Feb. 28 and said he felt God was summoning him to a different kind of service in the church. 

    "God is calling me to `climb the mountain' and dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this doesn't mean abandoning the church. On the contrary, if God is asking this of me it's precisely because I can continue to serve the church with the same dedication and love as always, but in a way more fitting to my age and my energy," he said.

  • Tears and whispers

                 Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle

    Is crying in public a deal-breaker for a papabile?

    It’s enough of an issue that veteran Vatican-watcher Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa mentioned it in an article about the whispering campaigns aimed at torpedoing a candidate’s chances in the next conclave.

    He listed Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn as two papabili who have teared up in front of reporters from time to time.

    But perhaps the most televised tears by a papal candidate were shed by Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle when he received his red hat from Pope Benedict last November.

    Asked about it at the time, Tagle said candidly, “I cry easily.”

    In an interview yesterday with the Rome daily , Tagle recalled the episode and said he had personally apologized to Pope Benedict the day after his display of emotions.

    “Pope Benedict answered with some significant words: ‘No, you don’t need to apologize. We need heart in the church!” the 55-year-old cardinal said.

  • The Vatican fires back at journalists

                  Father Federico Lombardi

    In the wake of Italian press reports about Roman Curia score-settling, financial feuds and a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican, the Vatican opened fire on the media today.

    A statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State, read to reporters by spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, said much of the pre-conclave coverage was “completely false” and appeared designed to influence the outcome of the papal election.

    “If in the past, the so-called powers, that is states, exerted pressures on the election of the pope, today there is an attempt to do this in the public opinion, often based on judgments that do not typically capture the spiritual aspect of the moment the church is living,” the statement said.

    “It is deplorable that as we draw nearer to the beginning of the conclave, and the cardinal electors will he held, in conscience and before God, to express their choice, that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, or unverifiable, or completely false news stories, that cause serious damage to persons and institutions.”

    Italian reporting since Pope Benedict announced his resignation has been marked by a rash of conspiracy theories and speculation about “hidden” motives for the pope’s decision, almost all of it unsourced.

    This week, the Rome newspaper La Repubblica ran a series of articles alleging that a secret report by three elderly cardinals, commissioned by the pope last year, included revelations of sexual impropriety among Vatican officials and the existence of a "gay lobby" that wields undue influence inside the Vatican. The newspaper suggested the cardinals' report was a key reason the pope decided to resign.

    Vatican officials I have spoken with dismissed the La Repubblica articles and said the cardinals’ report focused on leaks and alleged mismanagement and corruption, not sexual sins. But since the report is confidential, not even Vatican officials can categorically rule out that such matters were mentioned.

    Father Lombardi voiced his own displeasure with pre-conclave coverage in an editorial earlier in the day, lamenting that some reporters were trying “to sow confusion and to discredit the church and its governance, making recourse to old tools, such as gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander.”

    “In the majority of cases, those who present themselves as judges, making heavy moral judgments, do not, in truth, have any authority to do so. Those who consider money, sex and power before all else and are used to reading diverse realities from these perspectives, are unable to see anything else, even in the church, because they are unable to gaze toward the heights or descend to the depths in order to grasp the spiritual dimensions and reasons of existence. This results in a description of the church and of many of its members that is profoundly unjust,” the spokesman said.

    Pope Benedict himself spoke recently about the divisions that have "disfigured" the church, words that many felt were aimed at the Roman Curia. Yesterday, in his last Lenten meditation delivered to the pope and top Curia officials, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi said they should all reflect on the "divisions, dissent, careerism and jealousies" that mark human experience.

  • Cardinal O'Brien's salvo on celibacy

    Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien has raised the possibility of a change in the priestly celibacy rule, saying many priests struggle because they are unable to marry and unable to have children.

    In an interview with the BBC, O'Brien said that while he had never considered marriage, "I would be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should get married." He noted that some branches of the Catholic Church already allowed married clergy.

    "It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own," he said.

    The cardinal's statement could make the cardinals' "general congregation" discussions very interesting come March 1.


  • A 'young' pope?

    One of the generally accepted assumptions about the next conclave is that cardinals will be looking for a relatively young and energetic candidate. So it’s worth examining what passes for “young” in the College of Cardinals.

    The average age of the world’s 209 cardinals is 78. Among the 117 cardinals who are under age 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave, the average age is nearly 72; almost two-thirds of the electors are over age 70.

    I decided to make an unscientific tally of the 15 most-mentioned papabili in recent days, and found their average age to be 67. Only one is under age 60 -- Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle.

    Clearly, if the cardinals are looking for someone in the youthful age bracket as, say, Pope John Paul II, who was 58 when elected pope, the field is going to be pretty thin.

    In fact, among cardinal electors, only four others are under age 60: Cardinals Baselios Thottunkal of Trivandrum (India), 53; Ranier Maria Woelki of Berlin, 56; Willem Eijk of the Netherlands, 59; and Reinhard Marx of Munich, 59.

    Looking again at the most-mentioned papabili list, there are five cardinals between age 60-65: Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, 60; New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63; Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, 63; Ghanan Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64; and Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65.

  • A resource for the conclave

    As pope-watchers prepare for the approaching conclave, here’s a great resource written by one of Rome’s true experts on the subject.

    “Conclave: Step by Step Through the Papal Interregnum” was recently revised by Monsignor Charles Burns, a Scottish historian who once worked in the Vatican Archives. It can be downloaded for free here from the Catholic Truth Society.

    Monsignor Burns reviews the rules and seasons the text with his own insights. I love the part where he talks about the possibility of electing someone outside the College of Cardinals and adds:

    “Beware! The last time a non-Cardinal was elected, in 1378, it caused the Great Western Schism, which divided Christendom into rival factions for almost forty years."

    When I bumped into the good monsignor in front of his residence near the Vatican the other day, he was as excited as all of us about Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement that he would resign.

    Like many here, Burns called the pope’s decision a courageous act that will go down in history.

  • The 'Pope of Italy'?

    Pope Benedict's Feb. 11 announcement that he would resign at the end of the month left him two and a half weeks to say goodbye to the church and the world, and to wrap up pending projects of his pontificate.

    It’s been a little surprising, then, to see Benedict’s calendar fill up primarily with encounters with groups and individuals from a single country: Italy.

    A meeting with the clergy of Rome. Individual “ad limina” audiences with bishops of Liguria. An encounter with an Italian charity organization. A private meeting with Italy’s outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti. Another round of “ad limina” meetings, this time with bishops of the Lombard region.

    The pope’s last scheduled meeting with a major public figure will be his Feb. 23 encounter with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

    The pope is reaching out to the broader world through his final general audiences and Sunday blessings. But these, too, tend to be predominantly Italian affairs conducted in the Italian language.

    We all know the pope is bishop of Rome. But often it seems that his role today has turned into “pope of Italy.”

    Vatican City, of course, is surrounded by Italy and there’s a natural crossover factor for any pope, Italian or not. Italian groups and leaders line up continually to see the pope, and they’re usually the ones who fill the basilica and square for papal liturgies.

    But as the world’s cardinals prepare to elect Benedict’s successor, perhaps now is the time to re-examine Italy’s demands on a new pope’s time and energy -- and its influence in the church’s universal mission.

    As non-Italian popes, both John Paul II and Benedict went out of their way to reach out to Italians. In the eyes of many, in fact, Benedict effectively “re-Italianized” the Roman Curia by placing a large number of Italian prelates at or near the top of key Vatican agencies. He has also increased the Italian cardinal count, leaving 28 Italians as eligible voters in the upcoming conclave. 

    But in the age of globalization, does it really make sense to continue a single country’s domination of Vatican affairs? And is it really necessary, as is often argued here in Rome, that a “foreign” pope needs an Italian secretary of state to manage the Roman Curia?

    In view of recent leaks, miscues and mistakes made at the highest level of the Curia -- some of which involved murky Italian business affairs -- one would hope the cardinals will take a fresh look at all this when they begin their meetings in Rome.

  • Lots of noise, few signals in early run-up to conclave

    Last year, Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and the Noise,” argued against over-emphasizing random fluctuations in forecasting outcomes like the U.S. presidential race.

    Papal elections are not presidential elections, of course, but it’s clear that in the run-up to the March conclave we are hearing a lot of noise. It’s a very specific kind of noise -- the chatter of what might be called “the conclave of the media.”

    As papabili buzz on and off the nightly news and “contenders” lists pop up on Web sites, it’s good to remember that most of the voting cardinals have yet to arrive in Rome and few, if any, are talking names with reporters.

    That creates a vacuum, and journalists have been happy to fill it.

    Journalists in the Vatican press officeMonday it was Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi who grabbed the media spotlight. Yesterday the outsider-turned-favorite was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Today it’s Cardinal Luis Tagle’s turn as the candidate of the day, at least in Italian newspapers.

    What the rest of the world needs to know is that little or none of this comes from the 117 cardinals who will be voting in the conclave. Many say they will wait to begin serious consideration of candidates until March, when the College of Cardinals begins daily meetings before being locked into the Sistine Chapel for the vote.

    On Feb. 11, less than an hour after Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement that he would resign Feb. 28, an Italian journalist approached me and said: “Let’s make Cardinal O’Malley pope.” He made the remark with a wink and a smile, but I think he took it as a serious project. Since then, O’Malley’s name has percolated with regularity through the Vaticanista community.

    Another Italian colleague told me last week that he had a couple of key appointments with Vatican cardinals -- not to interview them, but to try and direct them to the proper candidate.

    Italian journalists see themselves as players in a conclave, not just impartial bystanders. And some believe the press may have an impact in the papal selection process, at least in the period leading up to the voting. I remember that after the 2005 conclave, one cardinal remarked that he knew Cardinal Ratzinger was gaining consensus when he read it in the Italian newspapers.

    The mountain of speculation that’s filled the papers and the airwaves in Italy since the pope’s resignation has included scenarios of intrigue, backstabbing and supposed alliances. That prompted Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, to say the other day that he hoped this would not become a “conclave of the media.” He was taking his cue from Pope Benedict, who the day before had contrasted the “real” Second Vatican Council with what he called the false “council of the media.”

    So are there any “signals” out there amid the journalistic noise?

    Here are a couple of recent statements by actual cardinals that seem to lay down markers:

    -- Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, one of few cardinals who can truly be considered a “popemaker” and the one who will announce the new pope to the world, had this interesting exchange yesterday with the French agency I.Media:

         Q: Before his election, Joseph Ratinzger want to make (Curia) reform...

         A: Yes, but the Curia is a huge machine. A younger pope is perhaps needed.

         Q: What should be his age, in your opinion?

         A: The ideal age would be more or less 65 -- even 70 if he is in good form.

         Q: What are the qualities he would need above all?

         A: He would need to have above all the virtue of hope, because we find ourselves in a disillusioned world, a fluid society. He would also need to have clear ideas about the content of the faith.

    -- Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is found on most papabili lists, told me last week that the church’s credibility is a key issue for the new pope, especially in the wake of financial scandals and leaks at the Vatican.

    “Every time this pops up on Italian television, and you have a crook or Mafia member who has kept his money in the Vatican bank, that brings the Vatican down the drain, too. The Vatican has suffered from this kind of situation with business partners -- unsuspectingly perhaps, it is difficult to tell. But certainly the damage it causes is lasting,” Cardinal Turkson said.

    “We need to work on restoration of credibility. And I would put that probably on top of the list for the successor of the Benedict. It’s so important because now that we’re talking about new evangelization, and every pope has consistently talked about witnesses speaking louder than words. The burden is on us to be credible, to be sincere in everything we do.”

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