VATICAN CITY -- A bid by American cardinals to bring a touch of transparency to the process of choosing the next pope was halted Wednesday following complaints from fellow prelates attending meetings ahead of their election conclave.
Without breaking their vow not to discuss the content of the meetings, which started Monday, the Americans have held daily news briefings to give background to journalists about the selection of the new pope.
The briefings have been a welcome source of information and attempt at greater openness in contrast to the Vatican’s ingrained tendency toward secrecy.
Noting that cardinals from no other countries were holding briefings, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese in Texas said Tuesday that "this is more normal in the U.S. than in other places."
The statements by American cardinals also contrasted with the continual reporting of anonymous leaks, purportedly from the pre-conclave meetings, that have appeared in the Italian press.
But on Wednesday, the briefing due to be held by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, was called off with an hour’s notice.
In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for the 11 American cardinals said they were "committed to transparency and have been pleased to share a process-related overview of their work with members of the media and with the public.... Due to concerns over accounts being reported in the Italian press, which breached confidentiality, the College of Cardinals has agreed not to give interviews."
Asked about the clampdown in his own daily briefing for journalists, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: "The progress of the general congregations towards the conclave is not like a convention or a synod, where we try to give maximum information, but it is where we reflect to reach a decision. The traditional discretion of the general congregations is to protect the liberty of each cardinal.”
One Vatican expert said that the American bid to follow the rules on confidentiality while bringing as much transparency as possible to the conclave was being punished even though the leaks were coming from Italian cardinals.
“They’ve been slapped down,” said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author. “The Americans are being blamed for leaks in the Italian press. It’s a joke. The Italians do their leaking with reporters one at a time.”
Even though the cardinals taking part in the pre-conclave meetings were made to swear an oath of secrecy on the Bible at the start of the sessions, Italian newspapers have been packed with news from inside the conference hall, including the names of cardinals who have made speeches and even passages from those speeches.
One newspaper, La Stampa, quoted one unnamed cardinal as stating that the field of papal candidates ahead of the conclave was still wide open.
Other reports have suggested that the cardinals are pushing hard for more information on the report allegedly containing details on infighting and mismanagement at the Vatican, which was commissioned by Pope Benedict XVI before he stepped down as leader of the world's Roman Catholics on Feb. 28.
By Wednesday, all but two of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave had arrived in Rome. However, no start date for the conclave has been fixed.
[Updated 1:43 p.m. March 6: One of the cardinals arrived Wednesday. Lombardi said the last cardinal set to join the pre-conclave, Vietnam's Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, was expected Thursday, suggesting a date for the conclave could be voted on then.]
Fifty-one cardinals have so far made speeches during the general congregations, a time for the cardinals to discuss issues facing the church and to size up one another.
Journalists were shown video Wednesday of the Sistine Chapel being readied for the conclave, with two stoves being unpacked: one to burn ballots after rounds of voting and another to produce smoke after voting -- black to indicate no result and white to indicate a pope has been elected.
On Wednesday, the Italian magazine Chi published photos of Benedict strolling in the gardens at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome, where he is staying until a permanent residence in the Vatican Gardens is ready.
The pope emeritus was dressed in a white robe, white jacket, white scarf and a white hat resembling a baseball cap.