The decision, communicated only an hour before a scheduled news conference with American cardinals Wednesday afternoon, marked a quick end to a brief period of openness on the part of the Americans, who had said they hoped to keep reporters as informed as possible without breaking vows of secrecy.
The Vatican denied it had exerted any pressure on the American cardinals to keep quiet and cancel their briefings. But the Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, made clear that the Holy See considered this week's pre-conclave meetings to be secret and part of a solemn process to choose a pope, suggesting that he didn't necessarily appreciate the Americans' candor.
"The College as a whole has decided to maintain a line of an increasing degree of reserve," he said.
The cardinals "realize the importance of keeping things among themselves," said the Rev. Tom Rosica, a Vatican spokesman.
A report Wednesday by Italy's most authoritative Vatican reporter, La Stampa's Andrea Tornielli, disclosed details of the cardinals' private deliberations, including the revelation that they had called for reforms of the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the Catholic Church, and had asked for more information about the leaking of papal correspondence, a scandal known as VatiLeaks that engulfed the Vatican last year. Tornielli also reported that embattled Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles had spoken, that cardinals called for better communications between the pope and the heads of the various church departments, and that some cardinals wanted to extend the preliminary talks into next week.
According to Vatican officials and experts, the media blackout might be more than a crackdown in reaction to the leak.
It could also have a political dimension. One Vatican official speaking on background said that Italian cardinals, some of whom stand to benefit most from a quick conclave, had expressed misgivings about the American news conferences, during which U.S. prelates articulated what they were looking for in a pope. They often described criteria that did not match the characteristics of cardinals in the curia. The American cardinals also repeatedly said they wanted more time to listen to their colleagues and get to know one another, a position that Vatican experts said diminished the chances and power of better-known Roman officials, many of them Italian, who would gain from a speedier process.
Contrary to the statements of some of the American cardinals in the news conferences, the Vatican has said that the selection of the conclave's start date could occur without all the voting members of the college in attendance. In light of his retirement, Benedict had amended the Apostolic Constitution to empower the College of Cardinals to select the start date, as long as everyone was present.
In the last few days, the Vatican briefing theater has amounted to a semantics seminar on the meaning of attend. Lombardi has argued that if an absent but expected voting cardinal were going to attend, it was tantamount to his already being in attendance, and so the college could consider itself in plenary session.
American cardinals disagreed that they could tackle the start of the conclave without every seat filled.
"If the electors aren't all there, why bother?" Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas said in one of the news conferences. "It takes as long as it takes."
Of the 115 cardinal electors, only two remained absent Wednesday: Jean-Baptiste Pham of Vietnam and Kazimierz Nycz of Poland. The Vatican said they were expected Thursday.
Vatican experts instead interpreted the delay as they did the tension over talking to the media - as another political power struggle between officials in the Roman Curia and outsiders.
"Some people in the curia wanted an early election because it would benefit the front-runners, and it would benefit the curial cardinals who already know everybody in the College of Cardinals," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a political scientist and author of the book Inside the Vatican.
"Who does it hurt?" he asked. "The unknown candidate who would make a great pope, the younger cardinals; they are going to be dependent on the curial officials."
The Vatican said Wednesday there was no connection between extended preliminary meetings and a short conclave. "We should resist the link," Rosica said.
Cardinals Daniel DiNardo of Texas and Sean O'Malley of Boston said in Tuesday's briefing that they favored taking a longer time for pre-conclave discussions to gather more information.
"We need to give it the time that's necessary," O'Malley told a packed news conference. "I believe the feeling of the cardinals is that we want to have enough time in the general congregations so that when we go to the conclave itself it's a time of decision."
Drawing laughs, O'Malley added: "And it is hard to get a bad meal in Rome."
German Cardinal Walter Kasper also called for more time. "Among the cardinals, we barely know one another," he told La Repubblica newspaper. "There's no hurry."
Italian newspapers and international media have contrasted the Americans' unique briefings with the near-silence from other cardinals and Lombardi's comparatively sedate Vatican briefings.
The Vatican instead has sought to satiate the army of accredited journalists flowing into Rome with brief glimpses behind the conclave curtain. On Monday, the Vatican showed a video of cardinals sitting, standing, and reading in the theater where the congregations are held. On Tuesday, the feature presentation was a silent film with a camera panning over the three urns that will contain ballots during the election.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.