Surprise as pope changes conclave rules

Tue, Feb 26, 2013, 00:00

On what was another momentous day in this curious pre-resignation moment in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the Holy See confirmed yesterday that Benedict had changed the rules governing the conclave which will next month to elect his successor.

On any other day, Benedict’s Motu Proprio or papal decree relative to the conclave would have dominated all news attention. When he faced the world’s media yesterday, however, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi found himself having to deal with questions about another resignation, that of Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien.

Just one day after UK media reports revealed that Cardinal O’Brien had been accused of “inappropriate acts” with three priests and one ex-priest, the Vatican confirmed the pope had accepted his resignation, effective immediately. However, Fr Lombardi refused to comment on the accusations made against Cardinal O’Brien nor could he confirm the Scottish cardinal will not now attend the conclave.

It was Cardinal O’Brien himself who confirmed he will not attend, with a statement in which he said he did not want media attention to be focused on him, “but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and his successor” at the conclave.

For any further information on Cardinal O’Brien, the papal spokesman referred journalists to the cardinal’s statement in which he pointed out that the pope had accepted his resignation on November 13th, in view both of his “indifferent” health and the fact that he turns 75, the normal retirement age for bishops, on March 17th next.

This resignation casts a shadow over the conclave. Was it mere coincidence that the resignation was announced on the morning after British media reports of the accusations made against the cardinal?

Worse still, the cardinal is now one of a quintet of cardinals who find themselves involved in allegations and/or investigations related to how the church handled sex abuse allegations or allegations about their behaviour.

Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh, cardinals Tim Dolan of New York and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, and Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels all have serious questions to answer over their handling of clerical sex abuse cases.

While the attendance of the four last mentioned cardinals at the conclave seems certain, it seems highly possible that the College of Cardinals will accept Cardinal O’Brien’s decision not to attend. One interpretation of the apostolic constitution would suggest the cardinals could yet constrain Cardinal O’Brien to attend.

Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata said that Pope Benedict’s decree had changed only minor details of the conclave rules. Arguably the most significant of the changes, however, is hardly minor, given that the cardinals may now decide to anticipate the start of the conclave, perhaps bringing it forward to March 9th or 10th.

Such a decision will be taken at the “congregations” of cardinals which will begin on March 1st, the day after Benedict officially resigns. Inevitably, the papal spokesman was unable to confirm any conclave dates yesterday.

Fr Lombardi did confirm that the pope met yesterday with the three cardinals who had prepared an inside report into the “Vatileaks” affair, a report that reportedly disturbed Benedict greatly. The full report, said Fr Lombardi, would be made available to the new pope.