ROME — Pope Benedict XVI’s farewell deprived the media of one of those rare events that rivet coverage across the globe: The solemn majesty of a papal funeral. Presidents and prime ministers seated in pews set a stately tone for the conclave to follow, as the cardinals retreat under tight security to elect the new pope, signaled by the white smoke sent up after burning their ballots.
Benedict’s resignation was visionary, laying a precedent for future popes to exit gracefully in the event of memory loss or diminished capacity. But the papacy is sede vacante—Latin for a vacant seat. The Vatican has issued a postage stamp emblazoned sede vacante to cash in on the moment.
For the media, the absence of a funeral means a news vacuum, which is being filled by reports on scandal-tarred cardinals in the abuse crisis, come to vote in the conclave; balkanized infighting of the Roman Curia; and quickening coverage, much of it speculative on the papabile, leading contenders for pope.
Media coverage of the cardinals
The Vatican has accredited 5000 journalists. Satellite trucks abound and a three-story scaffolding for TV cameras faces St. Peter’s Square. At night, twenty feet away, homeless men sleep in doorways of gift shops.
Cardinals are for the most part tight-lipped about their preliminary discussions in meetings, called congregations. After several briefings by American cardinals on the tenor, if not substance of those gatherings, the U.S. delegation halted further press conferences. Information on what the cardinals are doing comes in daily Vatican press briefings that offer little substance. The cardinals have not set the date for the start of the conclave.
A slow news environment is good for go-to experts, like Jesuit Father Tom Reese, a sociologist widely interviewed in the media. “In 2005 the interviews I gave brought attention to America [the Jesuit magazine] and we landed 1000 new subscribers—that’s $30,000!” he said cheerfully.
A major topic of the coverage is how the next pope will deal with the Roman Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, that has become bitterly balkanized. Reforming the curial operations is a core issue for the cardinals. After the Vatican prosecution of Paolo Gabriele, the papal butler who leaked internal documents to an Italian journalist, Benedict ordered three senior cardinals to determine what went wrong.
They presented him with a 300-page secret report in December. In one of his last decisions, he ordered that the report be kept confidential for his successor, but allowed the cardinals who wrote it to discuss certain findings internally if their colleagues asked.
“The Roman Curia has always been a viper’s nest,” author Vittorio Messori, who has written extensively about the papacy, told La Stampa last spring. “However in the past at least it was the most efficient state organization in the world…We seemed to be faced with resentment, rivalry, greed, maliciousness and infidelity.”
“There is a need for Curial offices to be in touch with each other,” Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said blandly in response to a question at Tuesday’s briefing: “The Curia is there in service of the Holy Father—that’s an ongoing thing.”
The butler was a stalking horse for Curial officials loyal to former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano against his successor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, according to an official at a Western embassy here who spoke on background. “The Sodano bloc was exasperated under Bertone for his lack of diplomatic experience,” the official said. “The American cardinals see this as nonsense. They want strong management to rectify things.”