Day Two: The American Non-Hour

The first sign that something was afoot today came from what did not happen. Reporters woke up in Rome on Wednesday with the expectation that they would hear from New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan at a mid-afternoon press conference in the North American College (NAC, the American seminary in Rome).

Such press conferences had been held over several previous days at the NAC, but only there. Other national groups of cardinals – to say nothing of the Vatican Curia itself – are not accustomed to these sorts of regular freewheeling meetings with the press. Nor do they much like them. (Some say it’s because they are not as well organized as the Americans.). And as a result, they don’t usually do them.

The first oddity was an announcement that Cardinal Dolan would not be speaking but would be replaced at the event by now retired Washington D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is over eighty and, therefore, ineligible to vote for the new pope. Then word came down that the event would not be held at all.

What’s all this about? We can only speculate and want to avoid over-interpretation of minor events. But we should avoid under-interpretation as well. Though the spokesmen were careful to say that the Americans were free to make their own decisions about what to do, it’s clear that there’s much nervousness about cardinals speaking to the press during this interregnum.

Nervousness for several reasons. First, in the absence of official Vatican press events, the North American College perhaps started to look to some observers as quickly becoming the center of public information during the pre-Conclave period. That’s already a problem in some quarters (those same quarters don’t seem to understand that their silence and distance from the press creates a vacuum into which rush the very kinds of wild speculation they abhor).

But second, if you add in the fact that the Americans seem to want to take time to get to know candidates thoroughly, while the Italians, with greater influence already in place, seem to be pushing for an earlier conclave, another fear may be that the longer the loquacious Americans have to talk through the media, the larger influence they will have.

There are other cross currents as well, however. Cardinal Sodano took the unusual step Wednesday of warning against leaks to the press – and mentioning by name several Italians he thought were out of bounds. Was this a way to make a blanket rule that would also restrain the media-savvy Americans?

It’s hard to say. All we know for certain at the moment is that there will be no more American press conferences. You may read in the secular and even the Catholic press that the cardinals (Americans as well as others) have been “gagged,” but that’s a typical press exaggeration. The American spokesmen are saying it was a free decision to suspend events. It’s probably accurate to say that the American cardinals, like almost all the others, want not only to seem but in fact to be engaged in a common effort with the universal Church.

In the final analysis, maybe that’s all for the best at the moment, since information and movement forward on a date for starting the Conclave both seem dead in the water. In light of the context outlined above, the choice of date may tell us quite a bit.


An odd detail – about former Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony: The Vatican press office went out of its way to say that SNAP and other groups protesting priestly abuse will not be allowed to dictate who is allowed to vote in a Conclave. And Mahony, therefore, despite recent controversies about his actions on the abuse issues while in office, has a right to participate. But the cardinal was seen dining alone yesterday in a restaurant – Rome being perhaps the hardest city in the world to eat dinner by yourself, especially when 115 of your supposedly closest associates are in town.

[Note: This report may also be read in Italian and French.]

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