There are three related bits of pre-conclave news today. Together, they paint an interesting picture.
1. The first is that the American cardinals have been told to shut up. It seems that they had taken to giving daily press briefings, and that today they announced -- via email -- that these would not continue. Their colleagues seemed to feel that the briefings violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the oath to keep the details of a papal election secret.
NPR (or perhaps it was the BBC) spun this as a victory of old-fashioned, Italian-style omerta over modern, press-savvy American transparency. That is probably right, up to a point, although there are some other factors to consider. Chief of these is that the Americans are under particularly severe pressure because of the sex scandals. Further, they truly do operate in a social environment that is radically different from many of their peers. Whether or not "openness: does come naturally to the American cardinals (a highly debatable idea, given their past behavior), they know that they need to display some if they are to appear credible at home.
Frankly, we think that the Vatican could learn a lot from the American cardinals, who have themselves learned some hard lessons lately. Yes, the oath of secrecy is binding, and probably essential to a good election. But if the overall task, and the mission of the new pope, is to restore public confidence in the Roman Catholic church, then at least a little more transparency will need to be the new normal.
2. Before the gag order came down, Francis Cardinal George spoke to the Chicago Tribune about the deliberations, and indicated that the cardinals are making a serious effort to exclude from consideration any of their number who have been tainted by scandal, or who are known or even believed to have moral skeletons in their closets.
Frankly, we're not sure how many this leaves them to choose from. We're not being glib, or even cynical. We are reflecting upon the fact that, as we have said many times, these are old men, who have served their church for a long time according to its customs -- and they have been caught off guard by the pace of change in the society around them. Some have behaved immorally and knew it all along, but others were simply unable to recognize immorality when it appeared before them in an unfamiliar guise.
But one way or another, it will be easy for a close examination to disqualify many candidates. Among the progressives, it is likely that there are more like Keith O'Brien, whose open-mindedness on sexual questions extended even to inappropriate expressions of his own. Among traditionalists, it may be difficult to find a candidate who did not at one time or another show some support for Marcial Maciel Degollado. And so forth and so on, ad infinitum.
3. SNAP, the organization for those who have survived abuse by a priest, has released a list of cardinals whom it considers tainted and unacceptable . The list can be found here; it includes brief explanations for each man's inclusion. It is tilted somewhat toward cardinals from the English-speaking world, which reflects SNAP's constituency, and we aren't especially impressed by some of its explanations. Nor are we are not sure that releasing it was tactically wise, as there may well be some cardinals who take it as a challenge to their authority. But there it is.
The most instantly notable thing about SNAP's list of twelve cardinals is that several of them -- specifically, cardinals Oellet, Scola, Dolan, Sandri, and Turkson -- have indeed been mentioned as potential pontiffs.
Taken, together, these three items do paint a picture of what is going on behind the scenes. The cardinals recognize, at last, that they are in a time of immense crisis, principally because they no longer live in an age when sexual misconduct can be handled privately. They feel the pressure, both from within their ranks and from the world outside. One one hand, they want to make a wise choice; on the other, they do not want the process by which they make that choice to look as though it has been directed by anyone but themselves.
We wish them well.