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Pope Benedict is studying the possibility of issuing a document that would clarify certain issues being raised about the coming conclave, including the possibility of an early start to the papal election.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said today that if the document is issued, it would come before the papal resignation takes effect Feb. 28. Lombardi said he thought the document might address certain ritual questions. He said he didn’t know if the pope would say anything about the starting date of the conclave, but the spokesman left the impression that the pope was aware of the timing issue.

The Vatican rules say that in preparing for a conclave, the cardinals “must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent.” Experts initially said that meant March 15 was the earliest possible starting date, given that the sede vacante begins Feb. 28. But others say the wording leaves open the possibility that the conclave could begin sooner, as long as all the cardinals were present or accounted for.

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.

Monday 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.”

What’s being called the “Mahony affair” has taken center stage in Italian press coverage of the upcoming conclave, with expressions of outrage that the Los Angeles cardinal accused of covering up sex abuse by priests would come to Rome for the papal election.

Cardinal Roger Mahony announced through his blog that he intends to participate in the conclave, just a few weeks after he was removed from “administrative or public duties” as retired archbishop of Los Angeles because of past failures to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

After a U.S. Catholic lay group urged Mahony to stay home, the popular Italian weekly “Famiglia Cristiana” on Feb. 18 asked online readers whether the cardinal should participate in the conclave. Not surprisingly, the vast majority said no.

One typical comment: “Cardinal Mahony should not only stay home from the conclave but retire to a life of prayer in a monastery.” Another sarcastically suggested that Mahony be allowed to participate only if he could make his way to Rome by swimming and walking, as a form of penitence.

“Revolt Against Cardinal Mahony” was the headline in the Rome daily La Repubblica, which quoted Cardinal Velasio De Paolis as saying Mahony should examine his conscience on the matter.

Most Vatican officials have avoided public comment on Mahony, but privately there is apprehension about what his presence would mean for the conclave. It risks leaving the impression that Mahony has to be hidden away in his home archdiocese, but can fly to Rome and take his seat as a member of the world’s most exclusive club, and help elect the next pope.

Moreover, Mahony is scheduled to make a deposition Feb. 23 regarding a 30-year-old case of abuse, which could raise new legal questions.

Church officials and fellow cardinals, however, are equally concerned at the public campaign being brought to bear. The Vatican spokesman earlier this week warned against a “conclave of the media,” and church leaders in Rome are extremely wary of outside pressure affecting the way the conclave works.

If Mahony is hounded out of the conclave for his mishandling of abuse cases, who might be next? they ask. Several other cardinals who will be voting for the next pope have been criticized by their own faithful for the way they dealt with abuse accusations.

While most of the cardinals’ deliberations in Rome will be private, the papal transition also features a number of public liturgies. One can imagine news cameras focusing on Cardinal Mahony, and microphones continually thrust in front of other cardinals with the question: “Should Mahony be here?”

Vatican officials maintain that Cardinal Mahony has the right to participate in the conclave and that — barring an intervention from Pope Benedict — it’s his call.

Note: Cardinal Bernard Law, who left Boston in disgrace in 2002 in the wake of clerical sex abuse revelations, participated in the conclave of 2005. But he had been out of the United States and, in a sense, off the radar after being given a ceremonial position in Rome in 2004.

When Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was himself accused of sexual misconduct, relinquished all his privileges as archbishop and cardinal in 1998, it was reportedly with the proviso that he would not participate in a conclave. But the issue never came up, as Groer turned 80 the next year and died in 2003.

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