Church in transition
Special Coverage Index | NCR home page





Posted April 9, 2005 at  10:14 a.m. CDT

Cardinals agree to go mum
in week leading to conclave

By John L. Allen Jr.

Over the next week leading into the April 18 conclave to elect the new pope, the 117 cardinals who will cast ballots are likely to be much less available to the press than they have been in recent days. While the College of Cardinals has not applied a formal gag order, there is a gentleman’s agreement that they will be much more cautious in their dealings with the media, and generally less available.

Though rumblings of such a policy had been felt for several days, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls made it official in a briefing on Saturday, April 09.

“The cardinals after the funeral Mass of John Paul II have begun a more intense period of silence and prayer in view of the conclave,” Navarro-Valls said. “For that reason, they have decided unanimously in these days to avoid interviews and meetings with the press. Journalists are invited to refrain from asking the cardinals for interviews or any other comment.”

Navarro hastened to add that this should not be read as a sign of disrespect, and that the cardinals wanted to thank the media for the “enormous interest with which they are following this period.”

Navarro said in response to a question that this is not a “prohibition” but an “invitation” to leave the cardinals alone to prepare for their “great responsibility.”

All this is a bit of change from what has been the case. The Americans, for example, have been almost ubiquitous in the media in the last week. From the CNN platform overlooking St. Peter’s Square, for example, Cardinals Justin Rigali, Roger Mahony, William Keeler, Edmund Szoka, and Theodore McCarrick have all given interviews on several of CNN’s six networks in just the last 72 hours. Next week, producers and journalists have been told, they shouldn’t plan on the same kind of availability.

From a media point of view, this silence would be frustrating under any circumstances, and may seem especially galling given that the global press has just given the Catholic Church the greatest week of uninterruptedly positive coverage in its history. Especially in the American market, coming on the heels of the sexual abuse crisis, this has been a remarkable turn-around, and it’s a fair question why the cardinals would pull back now.

In fact, there are at least six reasons.

First, the cardinals and their press advisors understand that now that the papal funeral is over, the press will shift from asking mostly “life and legacy of John Paul II” questions, to more aggressive questions about the state of the Catholic Church and about the next pope. In general, cardinals find the second sort of question more awkward and difficult to answer, especially given the way it almost invites speculation.

Second, the cardinals are concerned about protecting the liberty of the conclave. This is the reason that they are cut off from the outside world once the conclave begins, so that foreign governments, activist groups and other interest parties cannot exert any influence over their deliberations. It’s the same concept as the secret ballot in democratic societies – cardinals must be free to vote for the person who, in their consciences, would be the best man for the job. The concern is that in this pre-conclave period, the media rather than the cardinals might end up setting the agenda for their discussions.

Third, the cardinals are also concerned about honoring the vow of confidentiality they’ve made about the daily meetings of the General Congregation as well as the conclave itself. With the best of intentions, sometimes in conversations with journalists things slip out, and can end up having unforeseeable negative consequences. Simply saying “no” insulates them from this possibility.

Fourth, there is the simple logistical fact that if cardinals are constantly shuttling from one TV location to another, they’ll have proportionately less time to accomplish what is the primary purpose of this week – reflecting privately with one another on the issues facing the church, the profile of a leader needed to face those challenges, and ultimately who that leader ought to be. If they don’t have the time to talk with one another, calmly and at length, the quality of their deliberations might be impaired.

Fifth, some cardinals, especially those from Europe and North America, are more accustomed to dealing with a massive, at-times hostile press corps than cardinals from other places. The advantage of a blanket policy of caution is that those cardinals uncomfortable with media relations will have an automatic reason to say “no.”

Sixth and finally, this is supposed to be a period not just of political caucusing but also of prayer. The Catholic Church believes that the election of a pope occurs under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if it is nonetheless an eminently political exercise (as Aquinas taught, grace builds on nature, it doesn’t cancel nature out). The cardinals shouldn’t be so pressed that they can’t find the time for spiritual reading, prayer and reflection.

These are the reasons most commonly given for the pull-back from engagement with the press. Whether they are convincing is a matter of perspective, but it will be interesting to see to just how porous this membrane becomes over the next week.

Top of Page   | Home
Copyright © 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280