Monday, February 25, 2013

The Twitter Conclave

It is not only Benedict XVI who has revolutionised the Roman Catholic Church with his resignation.

Next month’s conclave has already been conditioned by the scandals that Benedict was not able to clean up and which were certainly one of the reasons for his abdication. I was asked this morning (top left) what effects this would have on the Church and the conclave – difficult in a few soundbites, but a clear and short answer came a couple of hours later.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned as cardinal and as primate of Scotland because of allegations of what he called “inappropriate behaviour” in the 1980s. He was due to turn 75 next month so might have had to step down during the conclave just for age but because of the suggestion of sexual misconduct, he decided not to even take part in the conclave in order to avoid speculation and pressure on his fellow cardinals.

There is a hint of Agatha Christie in the pre-conclave moves. There were 117 cardinals with voting rights when Benedict announced his resignation. The Indonesian Cardinal Darmaatmadja, said he would not be coming for health reasons. Then O’Brien resigned… and then there were 115. We know that American catholics have been putting pressure on Cardinal Roger Mahony not to attend the conclave. He is alleged to have covered up sex abuse in the diocese of Los Angeles and it will be interesting to see if he continues to take no notice of his critics but O’Brien’s move must weigh heavily on him.

This comes after a week of speculation on a secret report by three cardinals on the Vatican scandals. Concita De Gregori wrote in La Repubblica that there was a homosexual lobby (it was not clear if the “lobby” was just gay or whether what was really meant was pedophile – perhaps not a huge difference in the Vatican but outside the difference between one and the other is 10 years in gaol quite apart from the social condemnation). Nothing was quoted explicitly from the report which in theory at least has only been seen by the three authors and the pope. Though as David Moynihan pointed out, all the witnesses knew what they said and almost certainly confered with each other.

Then came the Vatican’s condemnation of press speculation aimed at conditioning the conclave… a rather futile hope as there are more cameramen and commentators than tourists braving the rain and sleet around St. Peter’s today.

The Vatican and the whole of the Roman Catholic Church is going through its own clash of civilisations and clash of generations.

The heirarchy has always maintained a tight grip on information and the behaviour of its people. They were able to present the Paolo Gabriele case as “Vatileaks” as if the scandal was the leaks and not the content of the leaks. Shoot the messenger was the result even if Gabriele got off lightly. The only way to stop speculation is to publish the Three Cardinals’ Report and to discuss Vatican banking policy in public. But that is not going to happen.

At the same time, Cardinal Mahony is tweeting and blogging and the pope himself tweets (or at least has a Twitter account). They are using social media and all the other media to push their own message but baulk at the idea that other Catholics (or non-Catholics) can use the same methods. But they are already using these media – the sex abuse victims themselves use the web to share their experiences and work out what strategies to use.

So that even though the Vatican would like to have the Kremlin’s control of the media, they cannot match the Soviet Union’s firepower (or Putin’s for that matter). This means there is much scope for change in the form and substance of the conclave, and even more so in what will follow.

Another question this morning was what can the Church do to overcome its difficulties – the Curia has always run the Roman Church’s government but in the last 30 years they have had a much freer hand than before. For the first part of John Paul II’s reign he was more concentrated on his own Poland and the rest of the world, then his illness and decline meant that he had no energy for internal reform. Benedict started his reign with intentions to at least address the sex abuse scandals if not the banking problems (the two biggest issues) but he did not have resolve to get to the bottom of them nor the political ability to manoeuvre the Curia.

It will take an able and highly manipulative (in the good sense and bad) pope to put the barque of St. Peter back onto a clear course. There eminences will indeed be looking for a much more political and energetic man to take over and since all of them were appointed by conservatives, they will likely appoint another conservative. But he will have to deal with pressure from the Catholic faithful and the media, like Cardinal O’Brien.

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