The Vatican lashed out Saturday at the media for what it said has been a run of defamatory and false reports before the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor, saying they were an attempt to influence the election.
Italian newspapers have been rife with unsourced reports in recent days about the contents of a secret dossier prepared for the pope by three cardinals who investigated the origins of the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents.
The reports have suggested the revelations in the dossier, given to Benedict in December, were a factor in his decision to resign. The pope himself has said merely that he doesn't have the "strength of mind and body" to carry on and would resign Feb. 28.
On Saturday, a day before Benedict's final Sunday blessing in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican secretariat of state said the Catholic Church has for centuries insisted on the independence of its cardinals to freely elect their pope — a reference to episodes in the past when kings and emperors vetoed papal contenders or prevented cardinals from voting outright.
"If in the past, the so-called powers, i.e., States, exerted pressures on the election of the pope, today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion that is often based on judgments that do not typically capture the spiritual aspect of the moment that the church is living," the statement said.
"It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi was asked how specifically the media was trying to influence the outcome; Lombardi didn't respond directly, saying only that the reports have tended to paint the Curia in a negative light "beyond the considerations and serene evaluations" of problems that cardinals might discuss before the conclave.
Some Vatican watchers have speculated that because the Vatican bureaucracy is heavily Italian, cardinals might be persuaded to elect a non-Italian, non-Vatican-based cardinal as pope to try to impose some reform on the Curia.
While Lombardi has said the reports "do not correspond to reality," the pope and some of his closest collaborators have recently denounced the dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, for example, criticized the "divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies" that afflict the Vatican bureaucracy. He made the comments Friday, the penultimate day of the Vatican's weeklong spiritual exercises that were attended by the pope and other officials. Ravasi, himself a papal contender, was chosen by Benedict to deliver daily meditations and on Saturday Benedict praised him for his "brilliant" work.
The divisions Ravasi spoke of were exposed by the documents taken from the pope's study by his butler and then leaked by a journalist. The documents revealed the petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism and even allegations of a gay plot at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
The three cardinals who investigated the theft had wide-ranging powers to interview even cardinals to get to the bottom of the dynamics within the Curia that resulted in the gravest Vatican security breach in modern times.
Benedict too has made reference to the divisions in recent days, deploring in his final Mass as pope on Ash Wednesday how the church is often "defiled" by attacks and divisions from within. Last Sunday, he urged its members to overcome "pride and egoism."
On Saturday, in his final comments to the Curia, Benedict lamented the "evil, suffering and corruption" that have defaced God's creation. But he also thanked the Vatican bureaucrats for having helped him "bear the burden" of his ministry with their work, love and faith these past eight years.
The Vatican's attack on the media echoed its response to previous scandals, where it has tended not to address the underlying content of accusations, but has diverted attention away. During the 2010 explosion of sex abuse scandals, the Vatican accused the media of trying to attack the pope; during the 2012 leaks scandal, it accused the media of sensationalism without addressing the content of the leaked documents.
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