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The key issue for the coming conclave is transparency

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 07, 2013

Something historic is happening in Rome this week. Not only preparations for the election of a new Roman Pontiff—although that would be historic in itself—but the clash between two incompatible visions of how the Catholic Church should present herself to the world.

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Yesterday the American cardinals abruptly suspended the press briefings they had been organizing every day during the sede vacante period, apparently under pressure from other prelates. The director of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, seemed more comfortable, now that the competition to his own daily briefings had been eliminated. He explained that while the cardinals were meeting for confidential discussions, it was important for all the participants to be sure that their talks would not leak into the public domain. More candid officials (and it is not difficult to find officials more candid than the Vatican’s chief spokesman) revealed that the American cardinals were shutting down their media operation because of a backlash caused by leaks to the Italian press.

There had indeed been some serious leaks. The Italian daily La Stampa, in particular, had printed detailed accounts of the “confidential” talks in the cardinals’ congregations. But these leaks had nothing to do with the American prelates’ daily briefings.

Think about it. A “leak” is, by nature, a surreptitious release of information. The American cardinals were doing nothing at all surreptitious; they were speaking in plain sight, with cameras and tape recorders rolling. If their briefings had been the source of indiscreet reports on the meetings in the Synod Hall, the whole world would have known it—and would have known exactly who broke the seal of secrecy.

There are, regrettably, always leaks from secret Vatican meetings. At a papal election, every cardinal solemnly vows that he will never disclose what happened during the conclave. Yet within a few weeks after each conclave, journalists have a fairly accurate understanding of what happened. Sad to say, some cardinals cannot keep their mouths shut, even when they have sworn to do so. Or perhaps the blame can be pinned on the few aides, translators, and technicians who have access to information from these secret sessions. In any case the leaks are completely illicit, and should not be compared with the above-board sessions arranged by the American hierarchy. Imposing a blackout on legitimate news briefings will not eliminate the illegitimate.

Yesterday scores of newspaper headlines announced that the Vatican had silenced the American bishops. Who or what is “the Vatican” in this context? The Vatican is a little city-state, ruled by the Pope. But at the moment there is no Pope. The Holy See is vacant, and since the prelates who hold high offices in the Roman Curia serve only to carry out the policies set by the Roman Pontiff, they currently have no authority. During the sede vacante period the Vatican is led by the College of Cardinals, acting in concert. There is no higher authority within the Church that could impose a gag order on the American cardinals. Evidently, then, the Americans acceded to a wish expressed by other cardinals, to avoid upsetting the serenity of the congregations. Yet they did so reluctantly. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who is (or should I say had been?) handling press relations for the American hierarchy, said bluntly: “The US cardinals are committed to transparency.”

Not all of the world’s cardinals share that commitment, apparently. The American cardinals did not want to violate the confidentiality of their colleagues, but they did want an open discussion of the challenges that face the universal Church. They wanted to air their own ideas, allowing others to comment, stimulating public discussion. They wanted their colleagues to know—wanted the world to know—what they were thinking, so that everyone would be more informed as the conclave opened. If the American cardinals had been politicking during their daily briefings, they would have deserved a public rebuke. But they had not been lobbying for votes; they had been answering questions from reporters, and raising questions for other Church leaders to address.

Every cardinal in Rome is doing the same thing: raising questions, answering questions--as a way of gaining information about the papabili and sharing opinions about the priorities of the next pontificate. Only the Americans were doing this openly, with reporters present to record their remarks. Other cardinals were going about the same business quietly, in pairs or small groups, over coffee or dinner. If an American cardinal said something imprudent during the briefings at the North American College, he was fully accountable. If other cardinals made untoward comments during their private sessions—gave inaccurate information, say, or canvassed for votes—the world would never know. Sunshine is a wonderful disinfectant, as the old saying goes. When cardinals are speaking before a battery of microphones, they are not whispering over drinks.

Some cardinals—perhaps many cardinals—evidently thought that by catering to reporters, the American cardinals were increasing the influence of the press and the likelihood of unfavorable media coverage. That attitude is profoundly misguided. The American prelates’ briefings had been the best source of solid information for the hundreds of reporters covering the cardinals’ meetings. (The “official” briefings by the Vatican press office offer only the most cautious, circumspect, and general hints about what the cardinals have been saying, combined with detailed information on the esoteric aspects of the papal election: the ceremonial urns one day, the cardinals’ residence the next.) Without access to that source of solid information, reporters searching for stories will now have more incentive to hunt down rumors, innuendos, scandals…yes, and leaks.

Even the blackout itself produced negative headlines for the Church. As John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter pointed out, Cardinal Timothy Dolan had been scheduled to address reporters. Inevitably the gregarious prelate from New York would have captivated reporters with his homespun expressions and one-liners, along with some pointed insights. Instead reporters were left with a story about a Vatican crackdown on prelates who break with the ingrown culture of ecclesiastical omerta.

Again, who are these influential Vatican figures who seem able to impose their will on the College of Cardinals? We do not know their names (although we may have suspicions) because they act behind closed doors, and do not take public responsibility for their decisions. But we do know that the Old Guard at the Vatican cherishes a certain distinctive approach to Church governance: an impersonal, top-down approach, in which officials make decisions without offering explanations, and dispense information strictly on a need-to-know basis.

Like any entrenched bureaucracy, the Old Guard at the Vatican protects its own position. So the Old Guard does not want the College of Cardinals to press for more information about the recent embarrassments of the Roman Curia, most conspicuously the “Vatileaks” scandal. Since the Old Guard is the best-organized bloc among the cardinals, its members do not want to allow time for other blocs to form; thus the Old Guard pressed for a quick conclave, in which the cardinals would choose a new Pontiff without pausing to ask inconvenient questions or consider unwanted possibilities.

Although the US cardinals agreed reluctantly to cease their daily briefings, it is significant that the College of Cardinals has not acceded to the pressure for a quick conclave. The Old Guard has apparently lost that contest, in what could be a preview of a fascinating papal conclave.

In the months leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the Old Guard then ensconced in the Roman Curia prepared a series of carefully worded documents for the Council’s approval. To their surprise and dismay, the Council fathers rejected those drafts, demanding more visionary statements. The Old Guard wanted to continue with business as usual; the leaders of the universal Church chose otherwise. Could something similar be happening in Rome this week? Could the cardinals be on the verge of rejecting the old approach and demanding accountability of Church officials?

In 2005, when the world’s cardinals entered the conclave to choose a successor to Blessed John Paul II, there was one question clearly uppermost in their minds: whether or not Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger should be elected. Next week—or whenever the conclave begins—I believe there will again be a single question at the top of the cardinals’ agenda: whether or not the Church will opt for transparency and accountability.

The blackout of the American cardinals has only heightened the tensions between two competing visions of the Church, and ironically enhanced the influence of the American hierarchy. This is not a matter of liberals vs. conservatives, or progressive vs. traditionalists, or First World vs. Third World, or centralization vs. decentralization. It is a conflict between those who see ecclesiastical power as an entitlement and those who recognize it as a responsibility—between those whose model for Vatican administration resembles the court of a 17th-century monarch and those who believe that anyone working in the Roman Curia is merely a servant of the Pope, who himself is the Servant of the Servants of God.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Mar. 09, 2013 4:56 PM ET USA

    As the last decade has shown, a competent Roman curia is a necessary (although nor sufficient) condition for the execution of the Petrine ministry. Roofing shingles and concrete foundations are by themselves useless in the proclamation of the Gospel. However, I have seen many beautiful Church buildings on the brink of ruin due to leaking roofs or cracked foundations. So it is with the Vatican, reform of the curia of itself will do little, but it is truly essential to the mission of the Church

  • Posted by: mclom - Mar. 09, 2013 6:09 AM ET USA

    I agree with those who disagree with ur point of view. I usually find myself in agreement with you, Mr. Lawler. Was unaware the American cardinals were holding their own conference & have been following Fr. Lombardi's. He handles the stupidest questions from reporters with tact & good humour. An extremely sulky American translates 4 English speakers& leaves out Fr's warmth & humour. Cardinals should be speaking 2 each other only, & PRAYING A LOT. Their "transparency" looks like self-promotion.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 08, 2013 10:57 PM ET USA

    Whew!! It's not all bad, Phil. We were apparently spared the embarassment of a "What-will-he-say-next?" commentary from Card Dolan.

  • Posted by: gop - Mar. 08, 2013 8:27 PM ET USA

    I think that it is better for the cardinals to have some serenity and recollection to discuss church affairs and vote for the next pope without distractions from the media. So I support the news blackout until after the conclave. Without perhaps realizing it, the cardinals, by always having press conferences, may be playing for the media and the world, instead of playing their role infront of their maker.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Mar. 07, 2013 9:18 PM ET USA

    All the hoopla about the corruption in the Vatican administration is a tempest in a teapot. It is about a few sole source contracts that don't amount to a hill of beans in the big picture. Governance of the Curia is noise compared to the crisis of faith around the world and the continued lack of responsibility on the part of the bishops in the sex debacle.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2013 6:35 PM ET USA

    Wow, from the 'hermeneutic of rupture' ethos and curia-bashing, for a second I thought this was written by Karl Rahner. My mistake. I guess the American cardinals are really offended that their self-serving media shows got cancelled. And using Magister to buttress your claim regarding growing influence? Please. The most influential American in the conclave is the one not making any media noise. He, and he alone, might be the first American Pope. The rest is politics.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2013 1:54 PM ET USA

    It is clear that there is a deep division in the College of Cardinals. It has little to do with theology or liturgy, but in the practical details of the operation of the Holy See. Those who favor the old ways of doing things - family employment for generations, lucrative business contracts, a lack of scrutiny - realize that their entire way of life is in peril. As I have said before, the core problem lies with its version of the "civil service" and "government contractors."