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Pope News Leaks From Factious Conclave


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The College of Cardinals will begin the process to elect the new pope next week. On Tuesday afternoon, they will gather in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave. The cardinals have been meeting informally and although all have sworn an oath not to share the details of their discussions, some reports somehow have leaked into the Italian press.

John Thavis has spent his career covering the Vatican. He's the author of "The Vatican Diaries," and joins us from Rome. Thanks for being with us.

JOHN THAVIS: My pleasure.

SIMON: There were reports in the Italian press, I gather, saying U.S. cardinals have been talking a lot. They've been activists behind closed doors.

THAVIS: Well, of course the Americans came in and did what they're used to doing, which is hold press conferences. They were very clear not to break the secrecy oath, which they all took. Nevertheless, after about three or four days of this, it became apparent to the rest of the cardinals that every single journalist was beating a path to the Americans door.

And it, frankly, was making the other cardinals look not so good, and so they had a discussion and decided as a group not to talk to the press. Meanwhile, information is leaking rather consistently, presumably from Italian cardinals speaking to Italian journalists. So, it has once again proven that Byzantine routes are the best way to get information in Rome and not on-the-record press conferences.

SIMON: What are some of the leaks saying in the Italian press, and maybe perhaps what you've heard from sources?

THAVIS: Well, one thing that's been leaked to the Italians is simply the names of those giving talks, and this could make a difference because, of course, the people who take the floor in these pre-conclave meetings are generally considered either people who may be papal contenders or people who may be leaving hints about papal contenders.

And we've also heard, of course, that there has been pretty strong criticism of the Roman Curia, which is the Vatican's bureaucratic apparatus. There's a feeling that in fact Pope Benedict was not very well served by some of his own top officials and apparently the Roman Curia officials have been marched to the microphone almost every day to do some explaining.

SIMON: Are there divisions between the cardinals that would help us understand the conclave? I mean, are there north, south, east, west; older, younger?

THAVIS: Well, the divisions in the College of Cardinals is so complex that you would need a very complicated roadmap to follow the lines and the connections and the divisions. There has been talk lately about what is called the Roman Party, and that reflects the fact that there are 41 cardinals voting in this conclave who either are now or have been officials of the Vatican's Roman Curia.

That's the biggest group, in fact, in the conclave, and if they were all on the same page they could probably push through a candidate. The fact is, however, that they're not all on the same page. There is also what is referred to obliquely here as the reform party and they're said to be those who want to make some serious changes in the way the Vatican operates.

And strangely enough, people are looking at U.S. candidates as part of this reform party and for the very first time we're hearing talk of an American pope. Cardinal Dolan of New York and Cardinal O'Malley of Boston have been mentioned rather prominently. It used to be that you simply didn't even consider that hypothesis, and now the talk is actually pretty serious.

SIMON: John, how do you react when you hear these reports that purport to know something from what are supposed to be confidential conversations? And I imagine that that will only increase until the cardinals are actually - if I might put it this way - locked inside and voting?

THAVIS: I'm glad there are leaks happening because otherwise we wouldn't know anything. On the other hand, there is certainly an Italian propensity to speculate and sometimes what I'm reading I recognize as pure fantasy. I think basically what a journalist has to do is get out of the journalistic echo chamber for a while. Keep in mind, there are 5,000 journalists covering this event. They're mostly talking to each other at this point.

SIMON: John Thavis has been covering the Vatican for 30 years. His new book is "The Vatican Diaries." He joined us from Rome. Thanks so much for being with us.

THAVIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.