American diplomats failed to predict Joseph Ratzinger would be elected Pope in 2005 right up to the day of his election, favoring instead a Latin American cardinal, according to the classified U.S. diplomatic cables revealed by whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.
In a briefing classified as “sensitive” and sent to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on April 14, 2005 — four days before Pope Benedict XVI’s election — diplomats at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See said the most probable candidate was someone “not too young or too old”. Instead they preferred candidates from Central and South America, noting the countries had large Catholic populations.
The diplomats wrote that the future Pope should be a “good communicator”, someone with a flair for languages, especially Italian, and should have pastoral and international experience. All of these are advantageous qualities, although the assessment has been criticized by some church commentators as shallow.
Four days later, German Cardinal Ratzinger was elected. A telegram was duly sent from Rome to Washington by the embassy’s charges d’affairs, admitting to making erroneous predictions. Their intelligence was sourced to Vatican officials and newspaper reports.
The telegram noted that even the day before the election, the embassy’s political officer had spoken with a Vatican official who had scoffed at the thought of Ratzinger being elected. But on seeing Benedict greet crowds on the balcony of St. Peter’s, the official was “shocked” and “speechless.”
The leaked cables reveal U.S. diplomats later describing Ratzinger as a "powerful cardinal" with a reputation as "the guardian of theological orthodoxy." But they added that "even though the media describe him as an autocratic despot," a senior American diplomat who had met Ratzinger said he found him "surprisingly humble, spiritual and easy to deal with."
The embassy’s immediate prediction for Benedict XVI’s pontificate was summed up as: "He will continue on the same path", "the focus will be on Europe” and “he will perhaps be a transitional figure.”
The failure of the U.S. embassy to predict the outcome of the conclave is not all that surprising. Guessing who will be elected the next Pope is always a tricky business, although once the 2005 conclave was underway, most media reports said Joseph Ratzinger was a strong candidate.
Italian Vatican watchers say it is probable that the diplomats based many of their predictions on newspaper reports and commentaries, particularly U.S. ones, as well as some of the most authoritative U.S. Vaticanologists.
It should also perhaps be noted that the embassy at that time was without an ambassador: former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson had just left the post, and the embassy was being run by transitory staff.
The security breach has been described as akin to “going through someone’s personal mail”. It’s also been stressed that the material is stolen and sensitive information that is being used to embarrass people and harm their lives and careers. Those facilitating the publication of the leaks and the people who made the information available have been respectively criticized as “self-righteous” and “idiots”.
The Holy See highly values the U.S. mission and vice-versa: a good deal of bilateral cooperation takes place and over the past 10 years or so the two have worked together on combating human trafficking, and promoting religious freedom, human rights issues, and AIDS prevention.
Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote on Monday that the release of classified documents by Wikileaks will not "substantially" modify the relations the United States has with other countries. The article was headlined "For the White House the Wikileaks files do not reflect government policy.”
Some sources say more revelations are to come concerning U.S.-Holy See relations, possibly over the clerical sex abuse scandal.
But they are unlikely to prove as embarrassing as leaks from other embassies as well as diplomats from other countries. Veteran Italian Vatican watcher Andrea Tornielli perhaps put it best when he wrote that the revelations reminded him of a joke told by Cardinal Domenico Tardini, Pope John XXIII’s Secretary of State (or vice-Pope).
When someone told the cardinal that Vatican diplomacy was the best in the world, he replied in an ironic tone: "If ours is the best, think what the others are like.”
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