Wired Vatican? Can the digital security hold?

Several years ago, as the clergy sexual abuse story kicked into high gear, papal biographer George Weigel made an interesting comment about a practical reason that many top officials inside the Vatican were failing to grasp the anger of many American Catholics -- especially the anger of traditionalists who usually are Rome's strongest defenders. During an Easter trip to Rome, he said, he discovered that many in the heirarchy still thought the story was hype. They could not see that the big wave of fury was still to come. They didn't get it.

But why? Didn't they read their email?

Weigel was amazed. Clearly there was some kind of "information gap" between the U.S. Catholic establishment and Rome, he said. Also, the worldly European press had remained silent, perhaps due to a jaded view of American obsessions about sex. But something else was wrong.

"Suddenly it dawned on me that the Vatican is simply not, to this day, a part of the Internet culture," said Weigel. "There are a few people who take the trouble to go online every morning or evening. . . . But in the main, what we have become used to and what frames our emotional responses to these questions, namely real-time information and a constant flow of chat, commentary, argument and so forth, . . . none of this exists over there."

So the Vatican just doesn't get the blogosphere. Does it grasp the realities of digital audio? I know Vatican officials will try to find hidden cell telephones inside the high walls of papal security. Can they find them all?

I bring this up because of an interesting Washington Post report the other day by Glenn Frankel and Alan Cooperman that ran with the headline "Wired, News-Hungry World Tests Venerable Traditions." The digital bottom line is easy to find. In the best-case scenario, this conclave is going to take place under a cyberdome of listservs, blogs, email and a level of cable TV and speciality publication journalism that has never been seen before.

Someone on CNN, during the funeral coverage, noted that CNN did not really exist during the conclaves that elected John Paul I and John Paul II. Now the world's media is so post-CNN. CNN is one of the old geezers of media, when it comes to this kind of insider, niche-oriented journalism.

So the Post is right to ask: What is ahead? What is the worst-case scenario?

The ritual contest to succeed the late pope could be another moment when tradition is tested. In a 1996 document setting out new rules and conditions for papal succession, John Paul conceded that he needed to take into account changing times and present-day requirements. Still, the document seeks to maintain the traditional wall of secrecy around the selection process and warns of dire consequences for violators.

"I absolutely forbid the introduction into the place of the election, under whatsoever pretext, or the use, should they have been introduced, of technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing or transmitting of sound, visual images or writing," wrote John Paul, who specified the exact wording of the three oaths of secrecy that all cardinals attending the sessions are required to take.

Once upon a time, the infamous Father Andrew Greeley claimed to have sources who gave him the scoop on what went on inside the year of the three popes. This year, there will be legions of digital Greeleys trying to get info. Does the Vatican truly grasp what is coming?

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