Rome — During his not altogether serene tenure as papal spokesman and head of the Holy See press office, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., has perfected a rhetorical style that is redolent of the years of Pius XII and the last heyday of the Papal Court, when the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, would begin a story based on an interview with the pontiff with the stock phrase, “As we gathered from the august lips . . .”
Thus on March 6, at a Vatican press briefing, Lombardi explained why the wildly popular press conferences the U.S. cardinals were holding at the North American College were being shut down:
The [General] Congregations [of Cardinals, now meeting daily] are not a synod or a congress in which we try to report the most information possible, but a path toward arriving at the decision of electing the Roman pontiff. In this sense, the tradition of this path is one of reservation in order to safeguard the freedom of reflection on the part of each of the members of the College of Cardinals who has to make such an important decision. It does not surprise me, therefore, that along this path there were, at the beginning, moments of openness and communication and that afterwards, in harmony with the rest of the College, it has been established whether and how to communicate.
That, in a word, is baloney. And not very artful baloney at that.
La Stampa, the Italian daily, was printing verbatim reports from the General Congregations, which are conducted under an assumption of confidentiality to which the cardinals present (including those over 80, who will not enter the conclave to elect a new pope) swear an oath. So how did La Stampa get what amounted to transcripts of the General Congregations? Some have suggested Italian cardinals with links to the paper, but my suspicions focus on the linguists who do the simultaneous translations, a known source of such leaks in the past. Still, the point is that at their press conferences, the American cardinals leaked precisely nothing. The discussion focused on issues, emotions, states of mind, and conclave process; there was no violation of the confidentiality of the General Congregations whatsoever. What there was, however, was a real exchange, with journalists from all over the world — an exchange that helped develop stories of a positive character. What was happening was the New Evangelization, in an extended sense of that term.
So in order to try to solve a problem caused by the unscrupulousness of the Italian press acting in tandem with unscrupulous leakers who had nothing to do with the American cardinals, the Americans’ press conferences — the most refreshing and media-friendly source of positive information and commentary on a story that has riveted the world’s attention, and an extraordinary opportunity to explain what the Catholic Church is — were shut down.