VATICAN CITY — Roman Catholic cardinals meeting here to pick a successor to Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday (March 7) that they still have not set a date for the actual conclave to begin, and while that decision could come any day, a lot of people are wondering what is holding them up.
Benedict announced his intention to resign nearly a month ago, on Feb. 11, the resignation took effect on Feb. 28, and most of the cardinals have been in town for more than a week. So what’s the delay?
The problem, in short, stems from the arcane structure of the papal election process, which forbids cardinals from campaigning (overtly) for the top office while a pope reigns — or even when he leaves office. More importantly, the process does not allow for any real vetting or lobbying during the prayerful silence of the conclave balloting itself.
As a result, the precious days between the time a pontiff leaves office and the moment the 115 cardinal-electors enter the Sistine Chapel provide virtually the only opportunities for them to sound out colleagues and size up potential candidates, and that’s what’s happening now during the daily meetings known as the General Congregations.
“This preparation is absolutely fundamental,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s top spokesman, told reporters on Thursday in response to persistent questions about why the conclave seemed to be on hold.
During the closed-door conclave, which Lombardi compared to a cloister, the cardinals “don’t have much time, almost none, to talk and reflect between one vote and another.” (There are four votes a day until someone wins a two-thirds majority — two in the morning, and two in the afternoon.)
Before they were told to stop speaking to the press on Wednesday, several cardinals this week also voiced support for continuing the pre-conclave meetings as long as necessary.
“We want to have enough time in the General Congregations so that when we go into the conclave it’s a time of decision,” said Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Or, as South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier put it, no cardinal wants to spend the rest of the month in Rome but “no cardinal, on the other hand, wants this process to be fouled up by ill-considered actions.”
“There’s a whole church out there that needs to get an answer, and I’d say sooner rather than later, but they want the right answer,” Napier told Catholic News Service.
But it’s not clear that even these preliminary meetings will be adequate.
Several cardinals have privately voiced frustration over the way the General Congregations are run because any of the more than 150 cardinals (non-voting cardinals over age 80 can also take part in the pre-conclave meetings) can speak on any topic for five minutes. Many run over that time, and the subject matter can veer aimlessly from one issue to another with no chance to go in-depth or develop a line of discussion.
Of much greater value, they say, are the private chats during the coffee breaks or over cocktails or dinners — the so-called “mumuratio,” Latin for the private conversations that produce actionable intelligence for the electors.
“Tying up the cardinals in meaningless meetings reduces the time for informal interaction prior to the conclave,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert for National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a blog post earlier this week.
“This is the most important thing the cardinals will ever do in their lives,” Reese said. “They should take their time. Sticking to the normal schedule will allow more time for cardinals from outside Rome to get to know each other and to exchange views on who should be pope. Rushing the conclave benefits the current frontrunners and the curial cardinals who already know all the cardinals.”
On the other hand, the longer the General Congregations go on, the more the press will be able to report on the leaks that continue to pour from the meetings, mainly from Italian churchmen to Italian media now that the American cardinals have been told not to speak to journalists.
“On a practical level, the move effectively muzzled U.S. cardinals and sent a signal that the Vatican’s communication culture remains one of back-channel sources, leaks and speculation — not on-the-record press conferences,” John Thavis, former bureau chief for Catholic News Service, wrote on his blog on Thursday.
In fact, the leaks — and the failed efforts to contain them — dominated questions to Lombardi and other Vatican officials. But the Vatican spokesman said they could only trust in the “good faith” of the cardinals to abide by their vow of secrecy — a strategy that will likely leave the public with the kind of backroom “mumuratio” that the other cardinals would rather do without.
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