After participating in the first “general congregation” of cardinals to prepare for the conclave, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made some interesting points in a briefing for reporters.
First, he said, the cardinals are in no hurry to begin the conclave.
“Someone quoted St. Thomas of Aquinas, who said you should be slow in deliberation and quick in decision making,” he said. “So, decision-making is the conclave, and deliberation is the general congregations.”
“I think that caught the sense of everyone there, that we need to take the time necessary,” he said.
The cardinals must begin the conclave by March 20, but they are free to move the start date up, and some had suggested that March 11 might not be too early to file into the Sistine Chapel and begin voting. From what Cardinal George and others said today, a later date now looks more likely.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington added that it was his understanding that before setting the conclave date, all cardinal electors must have arrived in Rome. That may not happen for another day or two.
Cardinal George also said he thought clergy sex abuse would be “an important issue in the minds and heart of the cardinals” as they choose a new pope. He called sex abuse a “terrible wound on the body of the church,” and said the zero tolerance policy — removal of all priest abusers from ministry — must continued to be accepted as the universal law of the church. Although new cases of abuse are much rarer, victims are still hurting and “the next pope has to be aware of this,” he said.
Asked about the situation of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who announced he would not participate in the conclave and acknowledged inappropriate sexual conduct in the 1980s, Cardinal George said it was a “tragic moment for him.”
“Certainly the tragic moment was when he was guilty of misconduct, and the consequences played themselves out now,” he said.
Cardinal George participated in the conclave of 2005, when the general congregations were presided over by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was eventually elected as Pope Benedict. This time, the general congregations are being run by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals.
Asked to compare the styles of the two men, Cardinal George said that while Cardinal Ratzinger was a theologian, and tended to synthesize the discussions, Cardinal Sodano was a canonist, and had a clear, direct approach in giving instructions and presenting the issues. “Both ways are effective,” he added.
Cardinal Sodano explained to the cardinals the rather tricky balancing act between swearing secrecy over conclave matters — which they all did this morning — and talking with the press in coming days. Essentially, it seems, cardinals will be free to talk to reporters as long as they’re not too particular about content and don’t start naming papal contenders.
As Cardinal George remarked, “They’ve decided perhaps that it’s better to talk to the press rather than not talk to the press.”