Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news

This is another of those religion beat nostalgia Memos, inspired by a pretty sensational March 22 scoop  in America magazine from its Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell. He reported the precise number of votes for all 22 candidates on the first ballot when the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis in 2013.  

The cardinals’ first round usually scatters votes across assorted friends and favorite sons, but a telltale pattern appeared immediately. The Italian favorite, Angelo Scola, got only 30 votes, with the eventual winner, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, close behind at 26 and Canadian Marc Ouellet at 22. In a major surprise, Boston’s Sean O’Malley was fourth with 10 votes, and New York’s Timothy Dolan got two. Clearly, the electors would forsake not just Italy but the Old World entirely and choose the Western Hemisphere’s first pontiff .

As so often occurs, the Washington Post immediately grabbed an important religion story that other media missed, with Michelle Boorstein adding a beat specialist’s knowing perspective (behind pay wall).

O’Connell likewise demonstrates the virtues of specialization. He has worked the Vatican beat for various Catholic periodicals since 1985, a task that requires long-term cultivation of prelates who spill secrets. (Or did his wife, a Vatican correspondent from the pope’s homeland, acquire this leak?)

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Adding to the intrigue, in papal elections each cardinal must take a solemn oath before God to maintain strict secrecy on everything that occurred, under pain of excommunication.

Yet O’Connell’s oath-busting leak appeared in a magazine of Francis’s own religious order, the Jesuits.  The article was excerpted from “The Election of Pope Francis,” O’Connell’s fuller version to be published April 24 by  another Catholic entity, the Maryknoll order’s Orbis Books.

There was less buzz over the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany — a powerful aide of Pope John Paul II — was the front-runner through all ballots. Significantly, Bergoglio was the runner-up. This time it took only five months for a cardinal’s diary to leak to an Italian journalist, followed by more detail six years later in the daily La Stampa.

The election of John Paul II in 1978 was as historic as the choice of Francis, breaking Italy’s 455-year monopoly on Peter’s throne. George Weigel’s authoritative John Paul biography says that comparing 1978 with other conclaves, “fewer details about the extraordinary process … have become public.” That’s amusing, since all historians need to do is look up the election week reporting in Newsweek and The Guy’s own Time magazinewhich were fiercely competitive on religion coverage in that era.

Just one day after John Paul’s election, a Vatican tipster who shall remain nameless stopped by Time’s Rome bureau offering to sell the vote totals on each of the cardinals’ ballots. A Time executive who shall remain nameless decided the price was too high (and found such an offer from a priest somewhat unseemly). We assume Father Tipster then marketed his numbers to Newsweek. But Time’s intrepid Rome Bureau Chief Jordan Bonfante and staff — whose legwork meant Time uniquely named the Polish cardinal in advance as a possible pope — got sufficient leaks to tell the tale anyway, and in some aspects more accurately than Newsweek.

On the second day of balloting, Giovanni Benelli came close to winning, but a surprising turnaround gave the papacy instead to Poland’s talented Karol Wojtyla. The rest is history.

Significance: Benelli was a seasoned Vatican diplomat, then number-two in its  Secretariat of State, and the architect of Pope Paul VI’s policy of accommodation with the Soviets. The more confrontational Polish pope was to leverage the disintegration of Communism’s European empire.

The Guy depicted clandestine Catholic governance in his 1974 book “Secrecy in the Church.”  Consider how interpretation of the Second Vatican Council was shaped by leaks from the closed-door deliberations for New Yorker magazine articles and a subsequent book by “Xavier Rynne,” the pseudonym for American moral theologian Francis X. Murphy. And let’s not get into those fabled secret archives on Pope Pius XII and the Nazis, which Francis now plans to open next year.

Speaking of leaks, how many times were The Guy and his colleagues scooped on what happened in the U.S. hierarchy’s closed-door discussions due to secret sources developed by the late, legendary beat patriarch George Cornell of The Associated Press?

Concluding questions that some reporter could develop into an article. Is it likely that a more public process before the pope appoints a bishop would help prevent devastating scandals? And would more openness on finances foster bigger donations to the church?  

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