Watching from so far away, one looks for facts in the daily assertions of news reports and personal opinion. About two quite basic matters, I fear I should have found much less assurance than I have in this space.
For one, there is still no date set for the conclave. Perhaps it may not start for some time yet. Can a date be chosen without all the cardinal electors present? There are conflicting reports. Two of the electors expected to attend have not yet arrived. The National Catholic Reporter quoted the Vatican Press Office as saying they are a Polish and a Vietnamese cardinal.
For another, the General Congregation did not meet Wednesday afternoon, so the cardinals could attend the prayer service at St. Peter’s Basilica. But while reports said Tuesday that the cardinals were happy to meet only in the mornings, there is a report they will resume their double sessions this week; see the text of the Vatican Radio broadcast.
So, please understand that I will continue to point out information in press reports, but that they are only press reports, a daily approximation of the truth. We’ll understand how accurate they are only as events unfold.
And what we can learn of the unfolding got harder Wednesday, with the announcement that the cardinals have decided that there have already been too many press conferences, too many interviews. The Americans were the only show in town as far as organized press conferences, so the criticism seems to fall on them, but their comments have been circumspect as far as the details of the General Congregations. What seems to have prompted the blackout is the much fuller briefings on the congregations given to some Italian journalists. La Stampa carried a resume of speeches made in the General Congregation. Catholic News Agency, in a joint report with EWTN, quoted a source familiar with the discussions in the General Congregation, as laying blame at the feet of the Italians: “A source familiar with the cardinals general meetings told CNA on background that the primary reason for the cancellation was that some Italian cardinals were divulging too much information to the Italian press. He added that at this morning’s general meeting, the names of those cardinals who revealed too much were read off in front of the assembly.”
The Americans agreed with the decision but defended their intention in meeting with reporters. Catholic News Service reported: “This is perhaps more normal in the United States," Cardinal DiNardo said Tuesday, explaining that the briefings were intended, in part, to let "our own folks know at home that we are meeting day by day, there are interesting things happening, we're moving ahead."
Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press pointed out that with their regular press conferences, the Americans were controlling the spin on preparations for the conclave. That their prominence does no service to improving the chances of an American being elected was pointed out in an interview by Cardinal George Pell of Australia with Catholic News Service.
But the Americans were hardly alone. The Brazilian cardinals told Folha de San Paolo they wanted to see the report on misconduct by Vatican officials before voting in conclave, according to a translation of the article on the website WorldCrunch.com.
A word about the discussions in the congregations: These take the form of interventions, individual speeches given in the order cardinals have signed up to speak. This is not debate, not assertion and rebuttal. It is the same form used in the Second Vatican Council and in the synods of bishops since Pope Paul VI began them. The outline of the debate is only perceivable after a period of time, and the summing up is primarily accomplished in the final agreed statements at the end or in the pope’s declaration at the end of the meeting and sometimes not till months afterward. For the General Congregations and for the conclave to come, the summing up will be evident in the choice of a new pontiff. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who is present in the General Congregation but will not vote in the conclave because of his age, spoke of the reform needed and said of the Synod of Bishops: “I don’t think it’s worked quite as well as was hoped; it’s a valuable instrument, but not enough.”
La Stampa reported there is some debate on whether the title pope emeritus is suitable and quotes an article in the influential church magazine La Civilta Cattolica in which a canon lawyer argues that bishop emeritus of Rome is more appropriate. Pope emeritus, the argument runs, suggests there are, in fact, two popes, a problem for the future.
The New York Times carried details of a poll it did with CBS News on attitudes of American Catholics, who are deeply dissatisfied with church leadership. For example, 7 of 10 say they think Benedict and the Vatican have done a poor job of handling clergy sexual abuse. Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College and writing on the website ReligionNews.com, points out that the most loyal Catholics in the poll, those who still attend Mass frequently, are nearly as dissatisfied as Catholics at large. “If your most loyal cohort, representing about 25 percent of American Catholics, are so far removed from where your magisterium, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel.” Silk writes. “Or maybe it’s time for a different kind of pope.”
There is still much to be done to get perspective on the shy man who precipitated all this. We have glimpses now of Benedict walking the gardens at Castel Gandolfo with his secretary.
And there is a text of one of the last talks Benedict gave before announcing his resignation, a meditation on the martyrdom of St. Peter, shared with students at Rome’s major seminary. Robert Moynihan has an English text, which is worth reading to get a sense of the mind and the critique Benedict offers to the church. I quote at length:
“Of course, there is a false optimism and a false pessimism. A false pessimism tells us that the epoch of Christianity is over. No: it is beginning again!
“The false optimism was the post-Council optimism, when convents closed, seminaries closed and they said “but… nothing, everything is fine!”… No! Everything is not fine. There are also serious, dangerous omissions and we have to recognize with healthy realism that in this way things are not all right, it is not all right when errors are made. However, we must also be certain at the same time that if, here and there, the Church is dying because of the sins of men and women, because of their non-belief, at the same time she is reborn.
“The future really belongs to God: this is the great certainty of our life, the great, true optimism that we know. The Church is the tree of God that lives for ever and bears within her eternity and the true inheritance: eternal life.”
That is the theologian and the pastor as he retired, having decided he was too frail to continue.
“Quale Papa?” -- “What kind of pope?” -- the Italian journalist Giancarlo Zizola titled a book in 1977 as the pontificate of Paul VI seemed to be drawing to a close. The question still resonates, and we wait for this year’s answer.