VATICAN CITY -- The biggest news Wednesday in the run-up to the papal election was that there would be no more news from the American cardinals.
Their silencing followed complaints from other cardinals after the Italian newspaper La Stampa revealed confidential information about what had been said in the pre-conclave "general congregation" of cardinals. None of the information in La Stampa came from the American news conferences. However, because the Americans were the only cardinals to hold news conferences, many observers and church officials perceived the blackout as an anti-American move.
"The U.S. cardinals are committed to transparency and have been pleased to share a process-related overview of their work with members of the media and with the public, in order to inform while ensuring the confidentiality of the General Congregations," said a statement from Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and organizer of the news conferences.
American Cardinals end news conferences
Cardinals Daniel DiNardo and Sean O'Malley talk about the American Cardinals ending their daily news conferences at the Vatican ahead of the conclave to elect the next Pope. (Video by Ann Rodgers; Edited by Melissa Tkach; 3/7/2013)
"Due to concerns over accounts being reported in the Italian press, which breached confidentiality, the College of Cardinals has agreed not to give interviews."
In an email exchange, she said Vatican officials had praised the way the American cardinals spoke to news media.
"Vatican officials have told us that the American cardinals were doing this the right way -- educating people about the events without breaching confidentiality. Officials said American cardinals were not the problem," she said.
The daily briefings with a rotating cast of cardinals had been immensely popular with the 5,000 media in Rome who are here to cover the impending conclave. The cardinals spoke on the condition that they not violate their oath of secrecy by revealing the substance of discussions in the pre-conclave meetings. They aired their own views, however.
The silencing of the American cardinals, which broke via email during a briefing at the Vatican Press Office, dominated the official Vatican news conference.
The big news was supposed to be that all 115 electors are expected to be in Rome today so the cardinals can begin to make decisions such as setting a date for the conclave. Preparation of the Sistine Chapel is under way.
Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, said 51 cardinals from all over the world had given brief speeches since Monday about the future of the church. The topics they raised included the church's role in the wider world, efforts to re-evangelize secularized people, the Vatican and its bureaucracy, and that bureaucracy's relationship with diocesan bishops.
These topics show "the expectations and hopes for the new pope," said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who provided English summaries. "What is beginning to emerge is a profile of the next pope."
The theme of the Vatican bureaucracy and its relationship with diocesan bishops played into the speculation about who had leaned on the American cardinals to stop talking. Criticism of the Vatican bureaucracy crosses all theological camps in the church. Some complaints stem from public gaffes and scandals involving incompetence, sexual and financial misconduct, or deliberate interference with the pope's agenda. Privately, some American bishops complain that certain key offices in the Vatican are run by people who don't understand pastoral ministry or diocesan administration.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the elected dean of the College of Cardinals, is a former secretary of state and Vatican bureaucrat who is running the pre-conclave meetings. When lots were drawn Monday for the three cardinals to assist him, all three were current or former Vatican officials. One theory is that these career Vatican officials want to control all messaging around the papal election and saw the American news conferences as a threat.
In her blog, Sister Mary Ann noted that the American cardinals who had seen the offending story in La Stampa were upset.
She compared the action against the Americans to "the old Catholic school style of one kid talks and everyone stays after school."
Father Lombardi, via a summary from Father Rosica, said "no other [bishops'] conference or group decided to hold press conferences as the Americans are doing."
He praised the American effort at transparency, while suggesting it was inappropriate.
"We are all very well aware of the strength of the Americans. They are very well organized in their communications methods. They do a very good job at that," he said.
But as the cardinals "continue this [election] journey and realize the utter seriousness of the importance of confidentiality when they make great decisions, they make the decision among themselves in speaking with their brother cardinals."
Journalists and bloggers who regularly cover the Vatican indicated that the chief beneficiaries of the blackout will be the Italian media whom the cardinals allegedly wanted to punish and the Vatican cardinals who will continue to feed them news anonymously.
"As the 'blackout' will inevitably be flouted by cardinals speaking to reporters on background -- in other words, you can bank it that the Curia crowd in particular won't be leaving their "court scribes" of choice in the dark -- the move indicates a struggle for influence over the public pre-Conclave script," wrote Rocco Palmo in his well-sourced blog, Whispers in the Loggia. "The Americans had injected ... two live-wire topics in the old guard's eyes: the importance of selecting a Pope committed to continuing a 'zero tolerance' response to clergy sex-abuse, and a choice able to accomplish a clean-up of the church's chaos-ridden central government."
John Allen, a renowned Vatican journalist for The National Catholic Reporter, surmised that the move against the Americans could backfire on the Vatican cardinals, and possibly stir interest in an American pope.
"There was already an anti-Italian and anti-old guard humor circulating among many cardinals, who have watched repeatedly as the system in the Vatican has broken down over the last eight years. Under the logic of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend,' [Wednesday's] development may make some cardinal electors from other parts of the world more favorably inclined to the Americans. They may look less like part of a 'First World' bloc, and more like fellow outsiders frustrated with business as usual," he wrote.
"Some cardinals may conclude that they've just had a brief 48-hour taste of what a more functional management style in the Vatican looks like. Perhaps they'll think that if they want that approach to become the new normal, they'll need an American to get it."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published March 7, 2013 5:00 AM