VATICAN CITY (RNS) The secrecy and security measures that surround a papal election are designed to “make the conclave safe for the Holy Spirit,” as the saying goes.
But the high-tech defenses the Vatican is deploying for next week’s conclave are so impressive that it will be a miracle if even the Holy Spirit can slip in to the Sistine Chapel.
On Friday (March 8), the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that special jamming devices will be surround the Sistine Chapel and the Santa Marta guest residence where cardinals will be sequestered during the conclave.
This will not only prevent electronic eavesdropping on the secret proceedings, but will also stop cardinals from communicating via telephones or computers with the outside world.
Church law regulating the conclave forbids cardinals from communicating, “whether by writing, by telephone or by any other means” during a papal election. The conclave is scheduled to open on Tuesday, and is expected to last for several days.
During the 2005 Conclave, a German cardinal informed a German television channel of the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI well ahead of the official announcement from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, according to the Italian daily La Repubblica.
All of the staff that will assist the cardinals during the conclave — from priests standing by ready to hear confessions to the sisters serving meals in the Santa Marta — will take an oath of secrecy, Lombardi said.
Should they breach it, they will incur automatic excommunication, the harshest penalty for Catholics.
Cars equipped with special jamming devices will also follow the vans that ferry cardinals from their residence to the Sistine Chapel, according to La Repubblica.
Benedict’s pontificate was plagued by Vatican infighting and resultant leaks, culminating with the so-called Vatileaks affair that saw the pope’s personal butler convicted of stealing confidential documents and leaking them to the press.
After Benedict’s surprise Feb. 11 announcement of his resignation, the Italian weekly Panorama claimed the Vatican had embarked on a large-scale surveillance and wiretapping operation as part of the Vatican police investigation into the leaks.
The Vatican denied that a large amount of data on the personal habits of cardinals and other officials had been amassed but admitted to wiretapping some of its internal phone lines during the investigation.
The urgency of security risks was highlighted by repeated breaches of the confidentiality of the cardinals’ daily General Congregation meetings that have preceded next week’s conclave. In recent days, Italian newspapers have published detailed accounts of the cardinals’ addresses and discussions during the daily meetings.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the U.S. bishops, said the secrecy of the upcoming conclave may challenge some bishops.
“Even who said ‘pass the salt’ is a secret,” Walsh wrote on the bishops’ blog. “In this electronic age, I worry some cardinals may go into iPad and Twitter withdrawal.”