ROME — American cardinals preparing for the conclave to elect a new pope abruptly canceled a press conference Wednesday and said they would hold no more briefings, shuttering one of the liveliest sources of information about the papal election.
The US cardinals said in a statement that they were committed to transparency, but that the College of Cardinals had agreed not to speak to reporters until after the conclave because of an Italian news report that contained leaked information about the cardinals’ confidential meetings.
Cardinals from around the world have granted interviews to hometown reporters and international news agencies since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Feb. 11. But the US cardinals were the only ones who held regular press briefings.
Although the American cardinals would not reveal what was said in the meetings or discuss contenders for pope, the briefings offered an invaluable opportunity to hear prelates’ reflections, in their own voices and off the cuff. They spoke about the experience of participating in the conclave, what issues they cared about, and what qualities they wanted to see in the next pope.
They also provided general information about how the talks were structured and why some logistical decisions were made. The tone of the question-and-answer sessions was spirited, and the cardinals seemed to relish the opportunity to explain — sort of — what they were up to.
“Obviously, there is great interest in what is happening here,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, said in a briefing Tuesday when asked why the cardinals were holding the press conferences. “We’re trying to help people have a greater understanding of what the process is and the procedures and give background information. . . . We’re happy to talk to you.”
In the regular midday briefing that serves as the official message of the church, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, told reporters Wednesday that the cardinals’ decision to maintain silence was part of their “journey” in the lead-up to the conclave.
“The cardinals, as they get more into it, realize the importance of keeping things among themselves,” he told reporters.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in a blog post Wednesday that the crackdown was prompted by a report in La Stampa, a daily paper.
“It named names and reported who said what,” she wrote.
She compared the consequence to a Catholic school-style group punishment: “One kid talks, and everyone stays after school.”
Vatican watchers saw other motives. John Thavis, the veteran Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service, said the leak should not have been a surprise.
“This has gone on in every meeting ever convened by the Vatican in the 30 years I’ve been covering it,” said Thavis, author of the new book “The Vatican Diaries.” “That’s the way Italian journalists work, and Italian cardinals work: ‘OK, we’re not supposed to talk, but we’ll float a few tidbits.’ ”
Thavis said some cardinals were probably irritated by the good press the US cardinals were generating for themselves by holding the briefings. The Rome daily Il Messaggero, for example, praised the Americans for giving the College of Cardinals a lesson in transparency, he said.
“The US cardinals are like Boy Scouts; they don’t break the rules, and they were very clear they aren’t giving out the content of the discussions,” Thavis said. “But they answered questions in general, about what qualities people were looking for in a pope, about the length of the conclave.
“The Americans were making everybody else look bad,” he said.
The clampdown is not a novelty in conclave press relations. In the days before Benedict was selected pope in 2005, the College of Cardinals also made a gentlemen’s agreement to stop talking to reporters.
But Wednesday’s blackout came as a disappointment to the horde of journalists who have descended on Vatican City. There are some 5,000 here from more than five dozen countries, according to the Vatican. Assigned to cover the secret election of the most important religious leader in the world, they are desperate for any morsel of information.
Each morning, they hound the few cardinals who arrive on foot to the general congregations. Dozens of photographers and reporters lie in wait outside the heavily guarded Pope Paul VI Hall, hoping to scavenge a comment.
The briefings by US cardinals were held in an auditorium at the Pontifical North American College, a tranquil seminary about a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square.
The backdrop lent an oddly festive sensibility to the proceeding. Cardinals sat onstage, in red chairs before a turquoise velvet curtain edged with gold fringe, and fielded questions from reporters sitting in plush seats below.
On Monday, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago spoke emphatically about the need for the next pope to embrace a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse. On Tuesday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, discussed the tension between wanting to return to his diocese in time for Holy Week and not wanting to rush the papal election. O’Malley fielded a question about whether he would wear his “cappuccino robe” if elected pope.
Without the sessions, reporters will rely on the daily updates of official Vatican representatives. Although reporters glean important information from the sessions, the updates tend to be dry and bureaucratic. Walsh said in her blog post that her team would also offer briefings, but without cardinals.
Wednesday afternoon, the North American College was quiet. Rain fell on the manicured orange trees in the courtyard. Strains of organ music drifted into the wet air from behind one of the thick walls.
The cardinals have not yet set an opening date for the conclave.Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.