Vatican quiets U.S. cardinals, ends news briefings

Breaches of confidentiality reported in La Stampa newspaper


VATICAN CITY — The biggest news on Wednesday in the run-up to the papal election was that there would be no more news from the American cardinals.

Their silencing followed complaints from other cardinals after the Italian newspaper La Stampa revealed confidential information about what had been said in the preconclave general congregation of cardinals. None of the information in La Stampa came from the American news conferences. However, because the Americans were the only cardinals to hold news conferences, many observers and church officials perceived the blackout as an anti-American move.

“The U.S. cardinals are committed to transparency and have been pleased to share a process-related overview of their work with members of the media and with the public, in order to inform while ensuring the confidentiality of the General Congregations,” said a statement from Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and organizer of the news conferences.

“Due to concerns over accounts being reported in the Italian press, which breached confidentiality, the College of Cardinals has agreed not to give interviews.

“Vatican officials have told us that the American cardinals were doing this the right way — educating people about the events without breaching confidentiality. Officials said American cardinals were not the problem,” she said.

The theme of the Vatican bureaucracy and its relationship with diocesan bishops played into the speculation about who had leaned on the American cardinals to stop talking.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the elected dean of the College of Cardinals, is a former secretary of state and quintessential Vatican bureaucrat who is running the preconclave meetings. When lots were drawn Monday for the three cardinals to assist him, all three were current or former Vatican officials. One theory is that these career Vatican officials want to control all messaging around the papal election and saw the American news conferences as a threat.

In her blog, Sister Mary Ann noted that the American cardinals who had seen the offending story in La Stampa were upset and had stopped their van on the way to the Vatican to buy a copy.

She compared the action against the Americans to “the old Catholic school-style of one kid talks and everyone stays after school.”

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, via a summary from the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who provided English summaries, said “no other [bishops’] conference or group decided to hold press conferences as the Americans are doing.” He praised the American effort at transparency, while suggesting it was inappropriate.

“We are all very well aware of the strength of the Americans. They are very well organized in their communications methods. They do a very good job at that,” he said.

But as the cardinals “continue this [election] journey and realize the utter seriousness of the importance of confidentiality when they make great decisions, they make the decision among themselves in speaking with their brother cardinals.”

Journalists and bloggers who regularly cover the Vatican indicated the chief beneficiaries of the blackout will be the Italian media who the cardinals allegedly wanted to punish, and the Vatican cardinals who will continue to feed them news anonymously.

“As the ‘blackout’ will inevitably be flouted by cardinals speaking to reporters on background — in other words, you can bank it that the Curia crowd in particular won’t be leaving their “court scribes” of choice in the dark — the move indicates a struggle for influence over the public pre-Conclave script,” wrote Rocco Palmo in his well-sourced blog, Whispers in the Loggia. “The Americans had injected ... two live-wire topics in the old guard’s eyes: the importance of selecting a pope committed to continuing a ‘zero tolerance’ response to clergy sex-abuse, and a choice able to accomplish a clean-up of the church’s chaos-ridden central government.”

John Allen, a Vatican journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, surmised the move against the Americans could backfire on the Vatican cardinals, and stir interest in an American pope.

“There was already an anti-Italian and anti-old- guard humor circulating among many cardinals, who have watched repeatedly as the system in the Vatican has broken down over the last eight years. Under the logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ [Wednesday’s] development may make some cardinal electors from other parts of the world more favorably inclined to the Americans. They may look less like part of a ‘First World’ bloc, and more like fellow outsiders frustrated with business as usual,” he wrote.

“Some cardinals may conclude that they’ve just had a brief 48-hour taste of what a more functional management style in the Vatican looks like. Perhaps they’ll think that if they want that approach to become the new normal, they’ll need an American to get it.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

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