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Violating conclave secrecy

September 25, 2005

I leave others to debate the credibility of reports that a cardinal, in no little detail, has broken his oath to observe secrecy about the balloting in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. Related questions, such as whether the reporter Brunelli dealt directly with the cardinal or with an intermediary, and, if with an intermediary, how the cardinal’s diary was obtained by him or her in the first place, are beyond my ken.

I write only to correct a comment on the canon law that appeared in this unfortunate story, namely: “Brunelli says he couldn’t identify the author [of the diary] because of the vow of secrecy each cardinal took before entering the conclave. Punishment for violating the vow is excommunication.” The first sentence is painfully imprecise. The second is simply wrong.

1. The refusal to identify someone who breaks an oath of secrecy does not protect the latter from culpability for having broken the oath. If the oath was broken, responsibility for the deed attaches in accord with the usual rules of morality and, if applicable, law.

2. According to ecclesiastical law, however, no penalty is specified for cardinals who break their solemn oath. The small number of support staff who are permitted into conclave precincts are bound by oath to observe secrecy and their oath is enforceable by penalty, but even there the penalty is not excommunication. Rather, it is that “which the future Supreme Pontiff will see fit to adopt, in accordance with Canon 1399 of the Code of Canon Law” (UDG ¶ 48).The sanction enabled by 1983 CIC 1399 is “a just penalty” which might or might not extend all the way to excommunication. There is also ¶ 55 that threatens “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future Pope” for those who violate secrecy, but the context of ¶ 55 is electronic eavesdropping, and in any case, the penalty need not be excommunication. Per ¶ 71, elector notes are to be burned, but again, no specific penalty (excommunication or otherwise) is attached to the violation of this norm.

In brief, if this sad story is true and if the offending cardinal is identified, Pope Benedict XVI may deal with the situation any way he sees fit, for no specific response to this particular offense is dictated by the words of Church law.+++ The Next Papal Conclave: Current Eligible Electors

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