How will Internet bear on the papal conclave?

Instant information demystifies process, cardinal candidates

April 15, 2005|By Mike Conklin | Mike Conklin,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The cardinals won't be toting laptops when they assemble Monday in the Sistine Chapel to pick a new pope, but the information highway constructed since the last papal conclave in 1978 could steer them in new ways.

"This will probably weaken the role of the kingmakers since everyone will already know something about the main candidates," says the Rev. Thomas J. Rees, who, as editor of the Jesuit-run America Magazine, is in Rome to cover the election.

From official archdiocese Web sites with biographies and announcements to reports from online periodicals, the cardinals and the public alike have unprecedented background material at their fingertips.

Rees and other expert observers are waiting to see if the Internet-driven leveling of the field enhances the chance of a pope emerging for the first time from a continent - Africa? South America? Asia? - where cardinals generally do not enjoy ready access to the Vatican's inner political circles.

It was a well-connected prelate, Cardinal Franz Konig of Vienna, who helped Poland's Karol Jozef Wojtyla become Pope John Paul II in 1978, according to Greg Tobin, author of Selecting The Pope: Uncovering The Mysteries of The Papal Elections. Before that, every pope since 1523 had the advantage of being from Italy.

For this papal election, however, an unparalleled amount of information has been available about possible candidates, thanks to the Internet - not to mention easy, instant global communication. Italian and European cardinals no longer have an advantage because of their geographic proximity to the Vatican.

"I'm sure they know more about each other than any cardinals in any conclave have ever known before about each other," Tobin said. "I don't think anybody can say for sure how it will affect voting, but the big factor is being able to communicate with each other long before they gathered."

"Certainly the Internet has made it easier for them, or their staffs, to learn what people are thinking as well as about each other," said University of Notre Dame professor Cathleen Kaveny, who teaches law and theology.

But the deliberations in the Sistine Chapel aren't going to hang on Google searches, she observed. "In the end, I'm sure they'll be trusting their own judgment."

The 'Net also makes it easier for the world to monitor news of the cardinals' deliberations. The traditional plume of smoke over the Sistine Chapel indicates when votes take place, but the Vatican Web site will post information at www.vatican.va, as will the world's media.

Readers clearly are turning to the Internet for coverage. Starting at the time of Pope John Paul II's final illness, the National Catholic Reporter reports its Web traffic has tripled.

America Magazine had nearly 4.5 million hits during the first full week of April, compared with 843,466 the previous week.

Meanwhile, traditional media coverage has been somewhat frustrated by the Vatican's embargo on news releases shortly after the pope's funeral. The cardinals also have opted not to speak to the press, a decision that has upset reporters and editors in Rome to cover the proceedings. Rees called this move especially disappointing, telling his American readers: "Anyone who has watched the Vatican knows that this will impact the Americans more than anyone else.

"The American cardinals were inclined to be open with the press and scheduled regular press conferences up to then. Following the rules, they will stop this, while the Italian and other cardinals will continue to speak on background to their favorite reporters."

Tobin points out the immediacy of the Internet may well clash with the traditional pace of the cardinals' conclave next week.

The shortest period to decide a pope was in 1978, when John Paul I was named after three votes. Tobin predicted this conclave could take as long as three or four days.

"For the electronic media, that'll be agonizing," he said. "To them, that's like three or four months."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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