Vatican City Canada's Marc Cardinal Ouellet used his Sunday homily to rebuke Catholic political operatives who are spreading nasty rumours about his fellow cardinals in the mud-spattered papal election campaign.
In his final public statement before the secret election begins Monday, Cardinal Ouellet reminded Roman Catholics that the conclave was supposed to be above the crass politics of the secular world.
“The choice the cardinals are making is not a political act based on some human calculation,” Cardinal Ouellet told parishioners at the Holy Mary in Transpontina church near St. Peter's Square.
“It's an act of faith, and profound listening to God's spirit, to seek the person that God wants to be the bishop of Rome and the head of the universal church.”
Cardinals are not supposed to campaign, but underground lobbying is rampant in Rome, where Italian newspapers have published accounts of backroom dealing and startling revelations on various front runners. Reports have questioned the physical and mental health, political connections and even criminal activity of cardinals.
As rumours spread that front runner Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had already locked up 50 of the 77 votes required to win the election, reports of ill health started to dog the 78-year-old German.
One newspaper dredged up details of Cardinal Ratzinger's past as a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Cardinal Ratzinger has collected a series of nicknames from unidentified church sources in the past week, including the Panzer Cardinal, God's Rottweiler and the Enforcer.
As buzz grew surrounding India's Cardinal Ivan Dias, so did the rumour that he suffers from diabetes. Details of an Italian cardinal's treatment for depression emerged and another was rumoured to suffer from Parkinson's disease, like Pope John Paul.
Whisper campaigns involved several Latin American cardinals, accusing them of unseemly connections to drug dealers, former military dictators and, in one case, a kidnapping.
All 115 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave starting Monday vowed to stop media interviews last week as they met behind closed doors to discuss the future of the church.
But the cardinals were still delivering homilies and their supporters were feeding the Vatican press corps a steady supply of dirt.
While Cardinal Ouellet addressed the political campaigning that is going on, most cardinals have preferred to dodge controversy out in the open, avoiding any direct talk in their sermons about the conclave.
Cardinal Ouellet's assistant in Rome, Rev. Jean Picher, said the pre-election innuendo and speculation should all be discounted.
“I don't think it is to be taken too seriously,” Rev. Picher, who was in daily contact with Cardinal Ouellet as he prepared for the conclave.
“It's sure the cardinals this week have had the opportunity to talk a lot. I can't imagine there is yet a frontrunner which is really determined.”
Cardinal Ouellet himself is a small part of the speculation. Sunday's Corriere della Sera newspaper put him last on a long list of possible longshot candidates to be pope. It was a rare appearance for a Canadian — even as a longshot — in Italian newspapers well connected in the Vatican.
Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte of Montreal and Toronto's Aloysius Matthew Cardinal Ambrozic are the other Canadian cardinals who will swear an oath of secrecy Monday morning before heading into the vote.
Earlier, Cardinal Ouellet figured in National Catholic Reporter's watch list of 20 papabile — cardinals with pope-like qualities.
An Irish betting website lists him as a 50-1 longshot, about 27th on the list of 115 cardinals who vote and are the likely candidates for pope.
So far no mud has stuck to Cardinal Ouellet, other than the widely-held view that he shares the hardline conservative values of Cardinal Ratzinger.
While Cardinal Ouellet speaks five languages, has Vatican experience and is conservative enough to please most of his fellow cardinals, at 60 he would be a risky choice because he lacks experience and would likely be a long-term choice for pope.
Carolyn Sharp, the former editor of Relations, a Jesuit journal, said Cardinal Ouellet is unlikely to win but the conclave will still be an important event for him.
“Ouellet's career is going to be something to watch after this conclave,” she said.
“He could make himself a lot of political capital in the conclave. He could come out of it a much more important cardinal than he was going in.”
The Economist magazine mentioned Cardinal Turcotte as a possible compromise candidate, but few others see him as pope material. Compared with most cardinals, he is a liberal on the role of women in the church and on other social issues.
However, Ms. Sharp said neither Turcotte nor Ambrozic was likely to advance much in Catholic hierarchy. Cardinal Turcotte has shown little interest in the stuffy life of the Vatican.
“Turcotte is a very pastoral cardinal who does some important things, but no one has ever thought he'd have a brilliant career in Rome,” she said.
Cardinal Ambrozic damaged any political aspirations he might have 10 years ago when he called a Catholic teacher who disagreed with him a “bitch” in a magazine interview.
Cardinal Ambrozic has avoided the media spotlight ever since.