By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
When Pope John Paul II rewrote the rules for the coming conclave, he emphasized repeatedly that the papal election and everything about it must remain secret.
The cardinals and those assisting inside the conclave or at the dormlike building where the cardinals will stay are to take a solemn oath to observe “absolute and perpetual secrecy” about the election. Violation of the oath can mean excommunication.
They are also to promise not to use any audio or video recording devices. The Sistine Chapel was to be swept for hidden cameras or microphones—a precaution introduced by Pope Paul VI.
Notes from the conclave are to be burned with the ballots, and the tally of each vote is to be sealed and delivered to the new pope for safekeeping.
The exhortation to secrecy is mentioned 17 separate times in the late pope’s 1996 apostolic constitution, “Universi Dominici Gregis” (“The Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock”), which updated conclave rules.
There has always been great curiosity about the inside story of conclave voting. After the 1978 conclave that brought Pope John Paul to the papacy, books were written with detailed descriptions of the shifting numbers of votes in each of the eight ballots before he was elected.
Much of the writing was speculation, but some of it was based on conversations cardinals had with close aides or friends in the excitement of the immediate post-election period.
Pope John Paul apparently did not want that to happen again.
The section banning electronic recording or communication devices expands on earlier precautions against the potential bugging of the conclave. Sophisticated surveillance equipment will be used to scan the area in and around the Sistine Chapel.
But because this time the cardinals will be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican building half a mile away, it may be more difficult to police electronics, including devices now routinely carried by some cardinals, such as cell phones, pagers, Blackberries or Pocket PCs with wireless capability.
The rules order that the Domus Sanctae Marthae be kept off-limits to unauthorized personnel during the conclave, and especially that no one approach the cardinals when they are being transported to the Sistine Chapel. The bus driver, presumably, will not be allowed to chat with his passengers.
The cardinals are warned against communicating with anyone during the conclave, by writing, telephone or any other means, except in cases of proven urgency. They are barred from reading newspapers or magazines, listening to the radio or watching TV.
The ban on divulging information related to the papal election even extends to the meetings the cardinals have before the conclave begins. That could make cardinals much less willing to talk to reporters in the days before they enter the Sistine Chapel.
All this does not mean the full story of the conclave will never be told. The rules say that once elected the new pope can lift the secrecy provision and let the cardinals tell the inside story.
Very few at the Vatican expect that to happen.