It has been revealed that the Vatican press office relied heavily on Wikipedia whilst preparing its press release on Pope Benedict XVI's recent announcement that 22 new cardinals will be created in February. It appears that Wikipedia - the online and sometimes unreliable encyclopaedia - was simply copied and pasted, often word for word, in the Holy See's briefing notes to journalists.
The Telegraph reported on January 9 that Sandro Magister, a world-renowned 'Vaticanologist', spotted the blunder whilst carefully reading through the Vatican's notes on the newly nominated cardinals. His suspicions were first raised when he noticed that the briefing notes referred to all the various nominees as "Catholics" - a rather obvious fact one would have thought!
After further investigations, Magister discovered that Archbishop Willem Jacobus Eijk of Utrecht had been described by the Holy See's press office as "distinguishing himself by having greatly improved the situation of the dioceses of Groningen, which had experienced turbulent times." It appears that these words - which seem unusually opinionated for Vatican approved statement on one of the Church's bishops - were "lifted" directly from the Italian language Wikipedia entry on the Archbishop.
Another embarrassing element in the notes on the Dutch archbishop was the Wikipedia based observation that he had "a strong leaning towards conservatism, particularly in regards to abortion and homosexuality". Needless to say, it's rather unfortunate for the Holy See to appear to suggest that there is something 'conservative' or noteworthy about a bishop who supports life and defends the family. As many commentators have pointed out that there tends to be a liberal, if not sometimes anti-Christian, bias in many Wikipedia articles - hence the description of Eijk's views as 'conservative' rather than 'Catholic'.
According to the Telegraph, Father Federico Lombardi SJ, who heads the Vatican's press office, said his staff used Wikipedia as they were in a hurry to produce the briefing notes and had not been given the list of appointees in advance. His team, he said, had simply been trying to help correspondents when they released details on the cardinals following the Pope's announcement last Friday. Fair enough. But many others, including bloggers, were aware of the names of most of the newly named cardinals well before the official announcement on 6 January.
After being alerted by Jane Mossendew (Thoughts from a Catholic Oasis) to another Sandro Magister article - both were published on 28 December - it seems that I knew the predicted names of those who were to be created cardinals even before Fr Lombardi. It seems that Magister's predictions were spot on, too. So if Magister - and his followers - knew who the new cardinals were going to be nearly two weeks before the Pope announced the consistory, surely the Vatican press office would also have had an inkling as to their names before the end of last week? Maybe not.
Many people, both inside and outside the Church, seem to think that the Vatican is staffed by drone-like albino monks who hold files on everyone and everything. The same people probably also imagine that the Holy See is so wealthy that its employees have access to the best IT the world has to offer - the type of technology one sees in a Bond movie. In recent times we have even seen some commentators in the secular press responding to the clerical abuse crisis by displaying apoplectic rage in their demands for so-called Vatican 'secret files' be made public. The reality, though, is nothing like the Protestant fundamentalist or the Dan Brown inspired myth.
It is probably true to say, then, that the common notion seems to be that those who work for the Holy See can find out anything about anyone at the tough of a button, or that they are so dedicated to the Church that they are somehow no longer human. Thankfully, this most recent story should help put pay to that rather naive misconception.
Forget about the Vatican's secret archives - try Wikipedia instead!
Note on the newly named Cardinals: -
One of the men appointed to the College of Cardinals was Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. In recent times, he has firmly defended the important truth that marriage can only ever exist between one man and one woman, and that this beautiful institution is both the foundation stone of the family and of human society itself. He will be given the red hat even though his predecessor, Edward, Cardinal Egan, will not reach his 80th birthday until April this year - the age at which members of the College of Cardinals lose their right to vote at papal conclaves.
It has commonly been held that the Pope does not create a new cardinal if a voting-age one already exists within a particular diocese. In elevating Archbishop Dolan to the cardinalate, Pope Benedict XVI has shown that exceptions can always be made to this unofficial rule. Needless to say, by the time Cardinal-elect Dolan receives his red hat on 18 February, there will only be 2 months remaining before Cardinal Egan actually does lose his right to vote in any future papal conclave. In that sense, it seems prudent to raise Egan to the cardinalate during the forthcoming Consistory.
One name that did not appear on the list of newly appointed cardinals was Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster. Of course, it is true to say that one of the reasons for this is probably because his predecessor, Cormac, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, is still eligible to vote in papal conclaves. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is not yet 80-years-old. He will be soon, though - on 24 August this year to be precise. That will only be 6 months after the newly announced Consistory.
One wonders, then, whether Archbishop Nichols would have been appointed to the Sacred College if his predecessor, like Edward Egan, had been born four months earlier? I guess we will never know.
Spero columnist Dylan Parry is based in the UK and writes at AReluctantSinner.