VATICAN CITY -- In the absence of actual news, the 5,000 journalists gathered in Rome for the election of a successor to Pope Benedict XVI are awash in conspiracy theories. Some may have substance, but probably only by coincidence.
An example is the question of why three of the four cardinal-electors with archdioceses in Germany were among the dozen who hadn't arrived in Rome Monday for the first day of general meetings to prepare for the conclave. They had had two weeks' notice and, unlike latecomers from places such as Vietnam, face no travel challenges.
Could it be that they were trying to postpone the opening of the conclave? Did they fear that Italian cardinals who work in the Vatican would try to rush the international cardinals into voting before they could identify a worthy candidate from outside the Vatican?
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is 80 but voting because his birthday fell after Pope Benedict stepped down on Thursday, could be construed as hinting at this in remarks to the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper.
"We need time to get to know one another," he said. "A papal election is not something you should rush."
Cardinal Kasper is president emeritus of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, where he was known as an ally of diocesan bishops who felt they weren't getting a fair hearing in other Vatican offices. Was he still running interference for them?
On the other hand, several American cardinals who attended the first three meetings on Monday and Tuesday said that the dean, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who epitomizes Italian power in the Vatican, has emphasized the need for time to air the issues and consider candidates before they enter the Sistine Chapel to vote.
"Many cardinals are concerned that if not enough time is spent in [pre-conclave] general congregations, that once we get into the conclave it could drag on," said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston. They want substantial advance discussion so that "when people go into the conclave they have a pretty clear idea of who they will vote for."
Cardinal O'Malley and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who spoke with the understanding that they could not reveal the substance of what was discussed in the closed meetings, gave careful answers to questions about tension between archdiocesan cardinals and the Vatican administration, known as the curia.
Curial incompetence is blamed for horrendous gaffes in Pope Benedict's administration, including failing to Google the name of a schismatic cleric who the pope didn't know was a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite before announcing that he would lift the man's excommunication. Occasional internal sexual and financial scandals have been coming to light for years, and a report written for Pope Benedict on "Vatileaks," secret Vatican documents given to the media, is rumored to reveal yet more scandalous details about Vatican clergy and prelates.
Cardinal O'Malley said he wasn't sure how important the Vatileaks issues were "to the work of the conclave," but that there was concern about ensuring that the curia "make the Holy Father's ministry more effective."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit political scientist from Georgetown University who studies the hierarchy, doubted that the Germans had delayed their arrival to stall the conclave and thwart the curialists.
"I would think that if they want influence, they would arrive as soon as possible and start talking to the other cardinals," he said.
In any case, seven missing cardinals including two of the three Germans, turned up on Tuesday. At last count 110 of the 115 electors were in Rome.
A goofier conspiracy theory has to do with why the American cardinals are holding daily news conferences. The real answer is that the perpetually helpful Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, set up an office near the Vatican. She drafts cardinals to brief reporters. This is exactly what she does twice a day during meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But nothing similar happens at the Vatican press office. Many attempts at interviews involve journalists chasing men in red hats down the street for a "no comment." Consequently the sessions with the American bishops have swelled with reporters from Italy, Brazil, Mexico, France and elsewhere.
This is puzzling to some European media. They ask American reporters why the cardinals are doing this. Is it a campaign to promote an American to the papacy?
A reporter asked the cardinals at Tuesday's news conference, noting that most of their confreres were "tight-lipped."
"Why are you doing this three times already?" he asked. "What is the philosophy behind this willingness to speak to so many of us?"
"This is perhaps more normal in the United States ... than it might be in other places," Cardinal DiNardo said. It's the cardinals' way "of letting our own folks know at home that we are meeting day-by-day, that there are interesting things happening and we are moving ahead. It's that kind of thing. Maybe it is more American."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.