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  • John Thavis

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.

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.”

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