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Illuminating an ancient ritual

The Catholic church has many challenges, but coping with too much transparency isn’t one of them. Still, as cardinals gathered in Rome last week for the conclave that will select a new pope, some leaders seemed fixated on clamping down on information. The latest example was the misguided pressure exerted on Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and other American cardinals to stop holding press conferences.

The American cardinals were making a laudable effort to break down some of the mystery surrounding a process steeped in ancient ritual. Although the prelates were careful not to violate their oaths against revealing internal discussions, they did talk in general terms about challenges facing the church. Even many non-American journalists packed the meetings for the window they provided into the mindset of the papal electors.

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But it was all too much for unnamed forces in the Vatican. After an Italian newspaper praised the US cardinals, the briefings abruptly ceased last Wednesday. “The Americans were making everybody else look bad,” a Vatican observer explained to the Globe’s Lisa Wangsness.

That would be exactly the wrong reaction for any organization, but it’s especially unfortunate for one that crucially needs to accept greater openness and accountability in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandals. The American cardinals were right to be more forthcoming about the papal selection process, and their colleagues in the Vatican were wrong to object. So many of the church’s troubles have been rooted in secrecy; at the very moment cardinals are mulling the church’s future they should strive to learn from past mistakes.

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