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  • John Thavis

Conclave secrecy: A two-edged sword

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.

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