The gang’s all here. Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, the last elector to arrive, landed in Rome Thursday afternoon, n time to attend the evening session of the General Congregation. EWTN’s David Uebbing quoted the Vatican press secretary, Father Federico Lombardi, as saying: “The Vietnamese cardinal made his journey today, and some Vietnamese priests from Vatican Radio are meeting him at the airport. We will see if he is here in time for this afternoon’s meeting.”
But the news was dominated by the assertion of control by a small group of Italian cardinals, experienced curialists, who demanded that all meetings with the press stop, a demand accepted by the General Congregation.
In its Thursday edition, The New York Times said the decision “reflected a deeper culture clash between the Vatican as a global church, whose faithful often expect direct answers, and an Italian institution where secrecy is the rule but leaks often the norm.” Also, unnamed sources told the Times, it looks as if the Americans were campaigning for Pope and it puts other cardinals under pressure to do the same. “But the tensions over how to address the news media — with American-style forthrightness or the ancient and more indirect ways of Italy — reflected a deeper culture clash between the Vatican as a global church, whose faithful often expect direct answers, and an Italian institution where secrecy is the rule but leaks often the norm.”
John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, writes on his blog Thursday that “the Vatican’s communication culture remains one of back-channel sources, leaks, and speculation, not on-the-record press conferences.” The Italian press is full of detailed reports of the General Congregation, precisely because the Italian cardinals, who hold no press conferences, are briefing their favorite reporters. “None of this is earth-shaking news,” Thavis writes. “It’s just more than dribbles out of the official Vatican briefings, in which names are never named.”
That leaves room for the influence of press reports, reports often planted by cardinals who wish to further a cause or scuttle one. See the Washington Post report by Jason Horowitz,on the role of the Vaticanisti, the well-positioned reporters who continue to make a difference, “the curious class of reporters, historians and gadflies who interpret for laypeople the shadows on the Vatican walls.”
The difference between the Americans and the others is highlighted because of the simple fact of the press conferences. But the Americans brought along a press officer and have a record of trying to communicate the purpose of such solemn church assemblies within the obligations of secrecy. They did so at the two conclaves in 1978, which I covered, though there was a tighter lid on the conclave of 2005, which I did not cover. Also at that conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided and summarized the interventions by the cardinals (see John Thavis’s blog, mentioned above), which is not happening this time. Therefore, there appears to be a certain aimlessness to the discussion so far and a lack of ease among the cardinals.
Robert Moynihan’s latest letter from Rome has a hard-headed assessment: “The American cardinals have been the ‘open’ ones, holding press conferences, but the Italians are the ones who have actually been talking to journalists, privately, not for attribution. So, the Italian cardinals have been speaking in private, but their words fill the Italian press! The Americans have been speaking in public, saying nothing of real substance about the proceedings -- and they are being asked to stop doing so! The Americans do seem a bit naive, holding press conferences with no real content in them, though the effort to provide some insight into what is happening in these days is to be applauded. So, there is no real drama surrounding the ending the conferences -- they contained nothing anyway. They were not important.”
And yet the assertion of control by curial cardinals “could cause a dramatic boomerang effect,” writes Giacomo Galeazzi for La Stampa. “A stars-and-stripes pope is considered a plausible possibility,” it said, quoting Dinal Boffo, former editor of the Italian bishops newspaper, Avvenire. “Just look at the Boston diocese which was among the worst hit; now the seminary is full and faithful have started making offerings again.”
What is at stake? See the extraordinary interview by RTE, the Irish radio and TV network, with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, leader of the Archdiocese of Dublin, in which he expresses his candid disappointment with Vatican officials who have ignored the norms Benedict set up for handling sexual abuse cases. “Children are at risk every day… and we all have a responsibility to work together,” Martin said. The archbishop, a former Vatican official, used the word cabal to speak of those in the curia who are hampering the Irish church in dealing with the abuse problem. He was responding in part to remarks by the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, who said the Vatican was “downplaying the rape of children to protect its power and reputation.”
Will the order of silenzio have any effect? It can only work against the control freaks. See the opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times by Michael D’Antonio, reacting to the the hush-up. D’Antonio, author of a forthcoming book about the abuse scandal, proposes a non-cardinal to the electors, none other than Diarmuid Martin:
“Martin symbolically washed the feet of abuse victims and noted the futility of a ‘faith built on a faulty structure,’ by which he meant the rule of ordained men. ‘The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated,’ he declared. ‘It did not come out of nowhere, and so we have to address its roots from the time of seminary training onwards.’
‘This Martin is no Martin Luther. He supports the morality preached from Rome, including its opposition to abortion. These positions might bother anyone looking for rapid change in the church, but they should reassure the orthodox and make it possible for him to be considered a worthy successor of retiring Pope Benedict XVI. In addition, he's a son of the land that has historically given more priests and nuns to the church, per capita, than any on Earth.”
Clergy sexual abuse is a huge issue for the church and those who have dealt with it credibly – Martin among them – have drawn the interest of the wider Catholic world and the public at large. My own newspaper, which won a Pulititzer prize for its extensive coverage of the abuse issue, has endorsed a candidate for pope, a first in my memory, none other than Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, who was brought in to clean up the abuse problem in the Diocese of Fall River and then the Archdiocese of Boston and was named an apostolic visitor to the church in Ireland for the same purpose. He broke no rules in the genial press conferences and interviews he has given and kept hope alive for many. See the interview with Lisa Wangsness of the Globe.
With American eyes and hope based on faith encouraged by the good will of fellow believers, we watch and wait.
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