Day Five: What “Secret” Process?

Today, Saturday, began as a day of relative quiet. The cardinal electors were asked to say Mass on Sunday, each at his “titular” church around the city of Rome. Later, the timetable for next Tuesday was released. We’ll have one round of balloting Tuesday afternoon, and I’ll be on EWTN that afternoon to cover such news as may emerge.

What that news might be, I’m surprised to say, may very well be: literally everything. The cardinals continued their General Congregation today, which is supposed to be a discrete, private, “sworn-to-secrecy – and excommunication-if-you-break-the-oath” – affair. Even simultaneous interpreters and staff have sworn in a way to put their eternal salvation in jeopardy if they leak. And yet, we knew almost as it was unfolding not only virtually everything the cardinals discussed today, but in some instances, which cardinals spoke to which questions.

It’s no surprise that more cardinals than ever, we’re told, spoke to reforming the mechanisms of Vatican governance, and that the discussion was both “frank and fraternal.” That after all was why Benedict thought he had to resign. But they also spoke bluntly about relations with Islam (an “African cardinal”), bioethics, women in the Church (Sandri), collegiality, more direct contact between the pope and his bishops, and many other subjects.

If you’re dying to follow the cardinals’ deliberations and are trying to read the tea leaves about who might be emerging as a frontrunner, of course, this is all quite interesting. If you’re concerned that the cardinals must be able to operate without outside pressure when they enter the Sistine Chapel, it’s another affair entirely.

Because there’s a real possibility that we may have virtually live voting tallies, day by day, from the Sistine Chapel, even – who knows – video. It’s difficult to know where these leaks are coming from, and I don’t want to overemphasize this particular point.  But sophisticated devices, maybe only as sophisticated as a Smartphone now, may be all that are needed.

 Inside Casa di Santa Marta

This will be the second Conclave in which, as well, the cardinals will not be literally locked into the Sistine Chapel for the duration. John Paul II did away with that after his experience with those arrangements – little “cubicles” created with ropes and blankets, and minimal toilet facilities for elderly men with aging prostates who had to hike repeatedly to distant facilities to urinate at night.

That was the impulse behind the creation of the Casa di Santa Marta, a kind of modest hotel on the grounds of the Vatican. But this means that the cardinals will walk or ride twice a day from one side of the Vatican to the Sistine, and back. Ample opportunity for security breaches even more extensive than those we are already witnessing. 

I visited with the Swiss Guards a few days back – I wrote the history of the guards for their 500th anniversary back in 2007 and they are kind enough to talk with me when they can. They are only responsible for the physical security of the cardinals. The Vatican government, the governato as they call it, has the responsibility for the secrecy of the event. The gendarmaria, the Vatican police force, along with expert consultants they bring in from outside, are supposed to deploy jamming devices to disrupt electronic leaks.

We’ve seen how well that’s been working. And we may be surprised at how porous a “secret” event can be these days. I’ve said it before on this page, but if you can’t even manage the kind of secrecy you must have in this day and age to carry out a delicate process like a papal election, the administrative side of the Vatican needs very deep restructuring indeed.

[Note: This column amy also be read in Italian and in French.]

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