Everyone who participates in the conclave, whether a cardinal or one of the many Vatican support workers on site, take a vow to maintain the inviolate and secret nature of the process to avoid the sorts of pressures that the selection of the Pontiff has undergone in history. If they are able to deliberate and choose in private, the cardinals are freed from worry that others will now how they voted or that the college was divided or that the new pontiff did not have certain amounts of support or support from particular people in his election. To that end, the Vatican goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure the privacy, from the prosaic like blacking out windows to the sophisticated like using advanced technology to sweep for bugs and block any kind of signals.
So the obvious question is whether this extraordinary breach of trust revealed anything worth mentioning.
The most newsworthy bit was that the initial voting resulted in 23 cardinals getting at least one vote, which indicates to me that pre-conclave campaigning, which was forbidden, did not occur to any great degree.
Also noteworthy is that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan (who retired in 2017 at age 75) got the most votes in the first ballot, 30; followed by Pope Francis at 26. Then Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, at 22; and Cardinal Seán O’Malley with 10. The other double-digit vote getter was Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil at 4.
What’s noteworthy here is that apart from Scola, the rest of the top five were all from the Americas. Scola was an obvious choice for a European pope, coming from Milan and Venice before that. Milan has produced 7 popes over the years and is a very prestigious archdiocese. But the spread among the rest showed a clear preference in the College of Cardinals for a non-European, a groundbreaking choice from the Americas. Thus in subsequent votes, it isn’t surprising that the top non-European vote getter would have the consensus build around him quickly.
Cardinal Seán’s high-showing was deemed surprising by the author, Gerard O’Connell, but it wasn’t surprising for those of us who worked for the cardinal at the time. In fact, he was being mentioned frequently by the international press and especially Italians who had an affinity for the American Franciscan’s humility and for reminding them of their favorite canonized son. But while the college was looking for a break from the past, clearly an American pope was too much of a radical change.
After the conclave was over and Cardinal Seán met with his people who were with him in Rome, he never revealed what happened, but clearly and non-verbally indicated his relief and gave the sense of a close call. In public and private, he always stated his docility to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, but made it clear that the papacy was not something he sought.
In any case, the amount of detail in O’Connell’s excerpt from his book indicates that at least one cardinal, and probably more, did not take their vow of absolute secrecy seriously, a vow made in public, hand on the Book of the Gospels in the Sistine Chapel. And if they’re not honoring that vow, what other vows are they failing to honor?