On Saturday, a day before Benedict's final Sunday blessing in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican secretariat of state said the Catholic Church has for centuries insisted on the independence of its cardinals to freely elect their pope - a reference to episodes in the past when kings and emperors vetoed papal contenders or prevented cardinals from voting outright.
"If in the past, the so-called powers, i.e., States, exerted pressures on the election of the pope, today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion that is often based on judgments that do not typically capture the spiritual aspect of the moment that the church is living," the statement said. "It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave . . . that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked how specifically the media were trying to influence the outcome; Lombardi didn't respond directly, saying only that the reports have tended to paint the Curia in a negative light "beyond the considerations and serene evaluations" of problems that cardinals might discuss before the conclave.
Some Vatican watchers have speculated that because the Vatican bureaucracy is heavily Italian, cardinals might be persuaded to elect a non-Italian, non-Vatican-based cardinal as pope to try to impose some reform on the Curia.
While Lombardi has said the reports "do not correspond to reality," the pope and some of his closest collaborators have recently denounced the dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace.
On Saturday, in his final comments to the Curia, Benedict lamented the "evil, suffering and corruption" that have defaced God's creation. But he also thanked the Vatican bureaucrats for having helped him "bear the burden" of his ministry with their work, love, and faith.
In the United States, meanwhile, as well as in Italy, popular pressure is mounting to keep California Cardinal Roger Mahony away from the conclave because of his role shielding sexually abusive priests. Mahony has made clear he is coming, and no one can force him to recuse himself. But the growing grass-roots campaign is an indication that ordinary Catholics are increasingly demanding a greater say in who is fit to elect their pope.
Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, one of the Vatican's top canon lawyers, told the Associated Press that barring any canonical impediments, Mahony has a right and duty to vote in the conclave. At best, he said, someone could persuade him not to come, but De Paolis insisted he wasn't suggesting that someone should.
Mahony was stripped of his public and administrative duties last month by his successor at the largest Catholic diocese in the United States. But the dressing-down only affected Mahony's work in the archdiocese, not his role as a cardinal.