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Some thoughts on conclave leaks

March 19, 2013

Some “leaks” from papal conclaves are little more than self-evident assertions. One of my favorite recurring leaks discloses that “when other candidates failed to attract sufficient support, electors turned toward [insert-name-of-new-pope-here]”. Duh.

Faux-leaks aside, though, every conclave experiences violations of secrecy.

Some leaks happen accidentally (e.g., the publication of an elector’s notes on the 1922 conclave found among his papers after he died), but most are deliberate. There seem to be three kinds: disclosures by old men deftly manipulated by journalists, leaks by those with an agenda, and others by those who want to feel more important than they really are. The last two categories can overlap.

From an evidentiary point of view most conclave leaks are unreliable. They are usually unattributed, leaving one with only the journalist’s word that such-and-such happened in conclave and that it happened the way the journalist understood the alleged source to have claimed. Moreover, leaks by fragile, biased, or emotionally needy men are not going to be contradicted by strong, balanced, secure men who understand and honor the oath they took, so one gets from a leak only a version of events, suspect as above.

Finally, leaks tell us virtually nothing new about what’s really important about a conclave, namely, who was elected. Leaks almost always focus on how a hundred or so men felt for few days about the options placed before them—but of course the whole world knows how they finally and formally felt about those options. So, what’s the value of the leak, really?

Now, about the law.

While the conclave assistants’ oath of secrecy set out in UDG 48 binds both in conscience and under penalty of law (Canon 1399 per UDG 48, excommunication per UDG 58), a cardinal elector’s oath (UDG 53) gravely binds only in conscience, not under penalty of law; electors who violate the oath they took in public (nb: before Extra omnes is called, per UDG 52) are accountable to God for their deed.*

Enforcing conclave secrecy is very difficult, and there is always a tendency to up the penalties when enforcement of a law is problematic. But, considering the range of information that could be leaked, I think that excommunication, a one-size-fits-all sanction, is too severe. Interdict seems more reasonable, as does a just penalty under Canon 1399.

Catholic journalists should have no part in tempting an elector to break his oath. That would be to act as an occasion of sin in another. Repeating or reporting on information, however, alleged to have been leaked is not, in my opinion, a violation of law.

* (A) Cdl. Kasper, unprompted, stated “Cardinal Bergoglio was from the beginning my candidate and I have from the beginning of the Conclave voted for him.” This seems to me a direct violation of the terms of conclave secrecy. (B) Cdl. Mahony stated “when the first blank ballot was given to us, and when it was time to write down a name, something powerful—and strange—happened. I picked up my pen to write, and I began.  However, my hand was being moved by some greater spiritual force.  The name on the ballot just happened.  I had not yet narrowed my thinking down to one name; but it was done for me.” This very odd comment does not, in my opinion, violate the terms of conclave secrecy, but it shows poor judgment. + + +

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