Wikileak-ed diplomatic cables about the 2005 election of Pope Benedict

The Italian daily La Stampa had an article yesterday about the US diplomatic documents leaked on the internet.   In this case, they concerned the papal conclave of 2005.

The highlights of the article.

Before the election the staff of the US embassy to the Holy See sent speculations to Washington about the one to be elected.

“The first factor will be age, the cardinals will seek someone who is neither too young nor too old, because they don’t want to have another funeral and conclave quickly” but “they also want to avoid having a long pontificate like that of John Paul II.”  Furthermore, “it will be a person in reasonably good health”.  Another element will be “linguistic ability” and he will have to know Italian.

Yes, folks, this is penetrating analysis from the US embassy to the Holy See.

Going on… they opined that it would be a Latin American cardinal.  Perhaps they were glued to CNN.  Had they been listening to FoxNews and people like me (was a contributor at the time) they would have gotten it right.  But I digress.

On the day of the election itself, there was a cable to Washington which pooh-poohed the possible election of Ratzinger.  Apparently the election shocked them.  They were also bamboolzed by media reports that Ratzinger was an “autocratic despot”.  That’s what you get when your remote TV control is stuck on CNN and you hang only with liberal clergy in Rome.  On the other hand, when one of them high up in the embassy met Cardinal Ratzinger  he was described as “surprisingly humble, spiritual and easy to deal with”.

There were speculations about a Rome/Germany axis for the Church.  Lord… did they really have people that dense working in the US embassy back then?  And that was during an administration friendly toward the Holy See.

On 12 May 2005 there was the aforementioned 7 page document “Benedict XVI: Looking Ahead to the New Pontificate” which projected what was going to happen with an “identikit” of the new Pope.  It suggested that this Pope would act in continuity with his predecessor.  It included the line: “in time of crisis the Church finds refuge in European identity.  They also suggested that this new Pope would battle secularism in the USA and the rest of the West, turning his attention also to developing nations, in particular Latin America were there are many disappointed Catholics because a Latin American Pope wasn’t elected.

From what I can glean from the article in La Stampa, the folks in the US embassy to the Holy See were mired in cliches and working from preconceptions which blinded them to the facts in front of their faces before the election.   As a personal aside: about a year before the death of John Paul, I made a bet with another journalist about who would be elected… not whom we wanted to see elected, but whom we thought actually would be.  We could choose three in order of likelihood.  My choice of Ratzinger at the top of the list brought out a laugh of incredulity.  But to be fair I laughed also at his choice of Cardinal Danneels.  That anecdote serves to show something of the mindset of a lot of people floating close to the center of things, those most “in the know” and involved in speculation (a Vatican watcher obsession).

It seems to me that the Catholic Church is fairly important.  The US State Department would do well to put competent, serious people who really understand the workings of the Church in their embassy to the Holy See.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Hieronymus says:

    Did you make that bet after the death of John Paul I or II? The post says “JPI”, but since that was before my time I don’t know where Daneels and Ratzinger stood, and thus don’t know whether to take that as a typo or a serious projection.

  2. Athelstan says:

    Even from my vantage point at the time – a graduate theology student with no special connections in Rome – it seemed absurd to discount Ratzinger’s chances. I was still pleasantly surprised, however, as were most I knew…which is to say that not many outside observers thought Ratzinger was a slam dunk. (The idea that Daneels could be elected has to be considered the most bizarre fantasy, however.)

    On the other hand, I have subsequently been informed with firm conviction by one prominent Catholic journalist that “Ratzinger was a done deal” before the conclave even started. If that is true, it doesn’t say much for U.S. intelligence gathering in regards to the Vatican.

  3. This information came as a result of a request under the Freedom of Information Act; the report that it was a Wikileak was an error:

  4. TomG says:

    Fr. Z,

    Trust me on this: Outside of the occasional Ryan Crocker type, the U.S. State Department does not “do well” at anything.

  5. danphunter1 says:

    “It seems to me that the Catholic Church is fairly important.”
    Father, you have just won an all paid trip to Kauai and a billion dollars to spend on a traveling jumbo jet parish that offers the TLM wherever you fly, for winning the grand prize on everyones favorite game show:
    “The Understatement of the Universe!!!”

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but I was always taught, from a little shaver up, that the Holy Ghost had the most influence on electing the Supreme Pontiff.

    On a side note, my mother was pulling for Cardinal Lustiger’s election to Pope in 2005.
    She really was struck by his Jewish background and conversion to the Faith, as she herself used to attend Synagogue services on Saturday and then Mass on Sundays.

  6. digdigby says:

    Irish odds at Paddy Powers (Ireland’s premier bookie) place Nigerian Cardinal Arinze in the lead for Pope and last I heard paid four to one. Yes, I know it is terrible to say but bookies will always be far shrewder than government talking heads (after all its money on the line). This is one shepherd who was ‘in the trenches’ with his sheep during the Biafra Jihad against Christians. Here is his Georgetown graduation speech. Music to MY ears:

  7. Now, that’s not fair. The State Dept. has plenty of competent people; they just aren’t likely to end up in charge or writing reports. Like most bureaucracies, they manage to muddle through (most of the time). Keith Laumer’s Retief stories are fictional sf humor versions of the sorts of things that used to happen when he worked for State; people may find them instructive about what embassy life is like.

  8. Nathan says:

    Fr. Z: The US State Department would do well to put competent, serious people who really understand the workings of the Church in their embassy to the Holy See.

    I think your frustration is shared across a number of contexts, not just with the Church, for a few reasons:

    –First, the Foreign Service quite deliberately fosters generalists, not specialists. Someone in the political cone (who would be writing the cables on US relations with the Holy See) does not specialize in the Church, or even a region. The Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are made to serve in embassies in multiple continents if they seek promotion; one may start in an embassy in Africa, move to Asia, spend a tour in Washington on a desk in the Middle East bureau, then be a political counselor in Europe. The best and brightest at the mid level often volunteer to go to places other than Rome or Paris or London because they can be in charge of a lot more in Addis Ababa or San Salvador–the mid-level political officers in the big European embassies spend a lot more time on VIP visits from the States (do congressional delegations go to Rome or to Sri Lanka?) rather than being engaged in actual diplomacy.

    –Second, FSOs are not recruited, generally, from academic programs with strong understandings of the Church. Even if a devout Catholic and student of the Church were to enter the Foreign Service, the spiritual supports for overseas postings are often just not up to the level of their military counterparts. Who do you think offers Holy Mass in diplomatic communites in much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia?

    –Third, presidents (of every political stripe) use the Ambassadorships of European coutries that are not involved in heavy diplomatic lifting to reward political donors. I remember briefing ambassadors who were businessmen from the Midwest, or mortgage firm executives, many of whom had absolutely no background in diplomacy or the countries and institutions where they were posted.

    In Christ,

  9. chcrix says:

    “Lord… did they really have people that dense working in the US embassy back then?”

    Back then? Have you looked at the cables that are coming out of wikileaks so far?

  10. irishgirl says:

    Why aren’t there any people with brains in the State Department–or for that matter, in the US government?
    Seems that there are none….sigh….

  11. DHippolito says:

    BTW, I hope Arinze succeeds Benedict/Ratzinger. JPII might have been brilliant concerning Communism but he was pathetic concerning Islam. The Church needs a Pope who will confront Islam on another level besides, as Alain Becancon called it, “indulgent ecumenism.” An Asian to confront the Chinese wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Just as long as we don’t get another European or, God help us, an American. The First World bishops are, for the most part, complete fools. Besides, Europe is lost to Christianity…unless the Evangelicals can stir up a real revival. I’m serious, people. Institutionalized Christian churches in Europe have done as much (if not more) in degrading that continent as Islam or secularism have.

  12. pmadrid says:


    As far as the embassy is concerned, wasn’t Mary Anne Glendon the ambassador to the Vatican at the time, or am I mistaken?

    There was no Ambassador to the Holy See at the time of Pope Benedict’s election. James Nicholson resigned as Ambassador on January 26, 2005, the day he assumed the office of Secretary for Veterans Affairs in President G.W. Bush’s administration. The Senate confirmed his successor, Francis Rooney, on Oct. 7, 2005, several months after Pope Benedict’s election. His successor, Prof. Glendon, was confirmed as Ambassador on Dec. 19, 2007 and presented her credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 29, 2008, well after his 2005 election.

  13. Melody says:

    I predicted the election of Joseph Ratzinger three years before. Does this make me smarter than the CIA?

  14. Supertradmum says:

    “From what I can glean from the article in La Stampa, the folks in the US embassy to the Holy See were mired in cliches and working from preconceptions which blinded them to the facts in front of their faces before the election”

    What we need is a professional civil service, which American tradition has departed from since the days of the Adams. Why we do not train civil servants, as Britain and some other European countries do is part of the fallacious thinking that in a democracy, the best people will naturally come forward to do their duty in government. This has not happened, and de Tocqueville was correct, as usual, in writing that one of the dangers of a democracy is the tyranny of mediocrity. Such cliches and preconceptions arise from anti-intellectualism and anti-Catholicism, the marks of small minds.

  15. bookworm says:

    If Cardinal Arinze ends up being the next pope, I know at least one person, of somewhat liberal persuasion, who (if she is still living by that time) will blow a gasket.

    Anyone know how President Bush himself reacted to the news? It just so happens that on the very day, in fact at the very hour, Pope Benedict was elected, Bush was in Springfield, Ill. for the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (I wasn’t there but I remember hearing live coverage of both events on my car radio while driving between newspaper assignments.)

    “Just as long as we don’t get another European or, God help us, an American.”

    Unless that American is Cardinal Burke :-)

    Years ago, I read a story claiming that Cardinal Spellman, during the 1963 conclave that elected Pope Paul VI, secretly transmitted the results to a CIA or State Department operative in Rome. Granted this story is merely a “persistent rumor” and probably should be taken with a large grain of salt, but if true, it would indicate that we had, shall we say, much more highly placed sources in the Vatican back then.

  16. bookworm says:

    “Institutionalized Christian churches in Europe have done as much (if not more) in degrading that continent as Islam or secularism have.”

    Even Dante, 700 years ago, recognized as much… there are several places in the Divine Comedy where he laments the effect the purported “Donation of Constantine” (which he assumed to be authentic) had upon the Church, by making it wealthy and powerful and also opening the door to the kind of corruption epitomized by the popes of his time, like Boniface VIII. He put three or four successive popes from his lifetime in the Inferno! Say what you will about separation of church and state… like Churchill said of democracy, it’s the worst system there is except for all the others.

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