Conclave countdown: In information vacuum, no shortage of scenarios

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The world's cardinals counted down to the start of the conclave opening on April 18, discussing the Church's future in broad terms and sounding out potential papal candidates.

The cardinals were meeting daily in closed-door "general congregations" that touched on topics as varied as bioethics, relations with Islam and evangelization goals. They were to celebrate Mass the morning of April 18 before entering the Sistine Chapel, where the voting takes place.

The cardinals, for the most part, maintained a blackout on interviews with the press. But leaks and rumors filled the news vacuum.

The most popular story line in the Italian press was that German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had the solid backing of 40-50 cardinals going into the conclave, but that forces were already in motion to stop him.

One newspaper reported a "veto" on Cardinal Ratzinger's candidacy by the majority of U.S. cardinals. Another said many cardinals were prepared to cast a first ballot for Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in order to show the strength of the "progressive" party.

More than one cardinal told Catholic News Service that the scenario of a conservative versus liberal showdown was mostly journalistic fantasy.

The sources said Cardinal Ratzinger did have the support of a significant number of cardinals, inside and outside the Roman Curia, who see him as a clear thinker, a great theologian and a symbol of continuity.

Cardinal Ratzinger's sermon at Pope John Paul II's funeral and his leadership role as dean of the College of Cardinals have certainly helped make him a "point of reference" for many cardinals, one source said. Just how many votes he would receive was unclear.

"We are not voting yet, you know," one cardinal said with a laugh.

When the voting does start, it will take a two-thirds majority to elect a pope -- 77 votes if there are 115 electors as expected. The cardinals can move to a simple majority if the conclave goes past 12 days.

One European cardinal discounted the idea that voting blocs were forming during the general congregations.

"It is gossip, that's all. Everyone will be guided by the individual conscience and conviction in this matter," he told CNS.

The news blackout was unprecedented, and it was extended even to the spiritual talk given to the cardinals April 14 by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the pontifical household, whose task was to review the problems the Church faces.

According to one experienced Vatican reporter, Luigi Accattoli of Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper, Cardinal Ratzinger, who chaired the general congregations, pressed for secrecy or reminded the cardinals of the interview ban on five separate occasions.

A few cardinals spoke to reporters on background, but most of their information was very general. One of them said journalists were doing more vote-counting than the cardinals in the pre-conclave period.

The news vacuum and the lack of a clear front-runner led to all kinds of scenarios. The pages of the Italian newspapers were full of who's up, who's down, who's in and who's out.

The journalistic consensus was that Cardinal Ratzinger would probably fall short of election, in part because of his age -- he turns 78 on April 16 -- and in part because, as head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation since 1981, he lacks the pastoral experience that many cardinals are seeking in a new pope.

If Cardinal Ratzinger failed to break through the two-thirds mark needed for election, the thinking went, his support could move to a number of candidates who share his perspective: for example, Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice or Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the papal vicar of Rome.

A first-ballot vote for Cardinal Martini was foreseen as largely symbolic, and the expectation was that those votes would shift in successive ballots to the "real" progressive candidate: Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, who reportedly received Cardinal Martini's blessing.

Many observers were convinced that if these main candidates fell short of election, then the College of Cardinals would soon look to the wider spectrum of "papabili," including three from Latin America: Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa and Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

Increasingly mentioned as "bridge" candidates between blocs of cardinals were three Europeans: Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of Florence, Portuguese Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo of Lisbon, and Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes.

From Africa, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze remained a contender, and, from Asia, Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias of Mumbai enjoyed a weeklong buzz in the press.

As the conclave drew near and the official sources of information dried up, journalistic mudslinging and insinuation were also on the rise. In particular, reports questioning the health of "papabili" were routinely passed around the Italian press.

One Rome priest approached Cardinal Dias, for example, to tell him he was sorry to read in the paper that he suffered from diabetes; the cardinal, surprised, told him it wasn't true.

What little official news that dribbled out of the Vatican press office was mainly housekeeping: The cardinals looked at how much the conclave would cost, drew lots for rooms in their residence and arranged for their cooks, housekeepers, bus drivers and janitors to take their own oaths of secrecy.

The daily meetings, in fact, were by most accounts the kind of dry, no-fireworks sessions that have marked Synods of Bishops in years past. The real exchange of opinions was happening in the unofficial encounters--to which the press also was not invited--between between groups of cardinals in Rome restaurants and ecclesiastical colleges.

With such widely divergent prognostications in the wind, some were predicting a long conclave. Not all the cardinals agreed.

"I think it will be short. The Holy Spirit works quickly," said Cardinal Saraiva Martins.


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