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Anxiety Befalls Vatican As Cardinals Gather


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Cardinals from all over the world are gathering at the Vatican, as they take their first steps toward electing a new pope. They'll meet tomorrow for their first official meeting since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down this past week. They need to find a candidate with a clean slate who's able to tackle the challenges facing a Catholic Church in crisis. In a moment, we'll hear from an American nun who says the church needs to broaden its leadership roles for women.

But first, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line to talk about the papal conclave. Sylvia, what is the mood in Rome as the cardinals prepare for the conclave?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Oh, there's a lot of confusion and anxiety. Privately, many cardinals are disoriented by Benedict's resignation. One cardinal described it as destabilizing. Many worry that a precedent has been set that weakens the papacy; that future popes will be exposed to pressure to step down, either by factions within the church or outside lobbies. And this opens up new scenarios. You know, there could be campaigns against unpopular papal rulings or pressure on an older, ailing pope to get out of the way.

On the other hand, there are also Catholics, like the dissident theologian Hans Kung, who hailed the prospect of what he calls the Vatican Spring. He sees the resignation as revolutionary because it has erased the semi-divine nature of the papacy and opened it up for structural reform in line with the contemporary world.

MARTIN: OK, so what will actually be on the agenda for the cardinals' first meeting tomorrow?

POGGIOLI: The first issue is the conclave's start date. There are two contrasting positions. Cardinals from the Curia, the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, want to start as soon as possible. Presumably, they don't want too much discussion of Vatican mismanagement. But many cardinals from abroad want more time to assess each other because of the cloud of the sex abuse scandals hanging over this conclave.

Several cardinals are tainted for mismanagement of abuse cases, not just Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles but also Cardinal Gottfried Daneels in Belgium, Cardinal Sean Brady, the Primate of Ireland; and even the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano. Candidates for the papacy must have an absolutely pure record. If dirty laundry were aired after the election, it would be a disaster for the church.

MARTIN: How do you think they're going to handle demands for reform of the governance of the church, which really erupted following last year's leaked scandal which revealed a whole lot of corruption, right?

POGGIOLI: It's a very pressing issue. VatiLeaks revealed a web of intrigue, corruption and turf battles inside the Vatican. Benedict XVI commissioned a report by three veteran cardinals who work for months, questioning hundreds of people inside the Curia. The result is a secret report that some believe may have influenced Benedict's decision to resign. He left the report for his successor alone. But many cardinals want to know what's in that report and whose names are singled out before they settle on a candidate.

We understand that the three cardinals who drafted the report will be allowed to brief the other members of the College of Cardinals. And that report is a time bomb for the Curia.

MARTIN: What are the factions, Sylvia, shaping up within the College of Cardinals?

POGGIOLI: Well, all the cardinals were appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict, and they reflect their conservative views so there's not going to be an ideological clash. Some of the major issues facing the church are the dwindling number of priests, the loss of faith in secularized Western societies and the growth of the church in Latin America, Africa and Asia and not in Europe. But what's shaping up as the major priority is cleaning up and reforming the Curia and establishing transparency.

What makes this conclave particularly unpredictable is the unprecedented, massive pressure from outside, not only from victims of sex abuse but from public opinion as a whole. There's intense pressure from the faithful for a revision of church dogma on sexual ethics, on the role of women in the church and priestly celibacy - to name just a few of the issues.

And at the same time, there's another novelty with unforeseen consequences. Just how free will the cardinals feel when making their choice, given the proximity of the man who made the cardinals and who many are calling the Shadow Pope, the pope emeritus? This could end up being one of the most complicated conclaves in recent memory.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, Sylvia, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.