Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

April 13, 2005

Vatican Security Challenges

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:30 pm

Natasha Bita of The Australian reports on the security arangements for the conclave to determine the next Pope:

Security specialists are sweeping the Vatican for bugs and installing jamming devices to stop any errant cardinals using their mobile phones in the lead-up to next week’s secret papal vote.

Wary of secret service agents, nosey journalists and even greedy gamblers spying on the conclave’s deliberations, the Vatican has hired espionage experts to inspect the Sistine Chapel for hidden microphones and spy cameras.

The security squad will rip open cushions, scrutinise carpets, inspect ventilation shafts and check that pipes, electrical wiring and lights are where they are supposed to be, La Repubblica newspaper reported yesterday.

It said the security experts were worried about laser microphones that can eavesdrop on conversations 400m away by recording vibrations on the windows of the Sistine Chapel.

The 115 cardinals who gather in the chapel on Monday to elect a new leader for the world’s 1.1billion Catholics will be asked to surrender their mobile phones, tape recorders and electronic organisers at the door.

All of this makes sense, in a sense, if they really want to keep the meeting secret, which they obviously do. Of course, there is one really odd contradiction, leading to one (possible) vulnerability, of which there seems to be at least one in every security arrangement these days:

The cardinals will be frisked by guards supervised by the papal chamberlain, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo of Spain.

La Stampa newspaper reported that the Vatican would use US technology to jam GSM, dual and tri-band mobile phones with an electromagnetic “wall” covering the cardinals’ hotel-style residence of St Martha’s — built between 1992 and 1996 with the succession process in mind — the Sistine Chapel and the 1km road linking them.

And as a cone of silence drops over the Vatican, voting cardinals will be denied access to newspapers, radio and television, while steps will be taken to stop them having chance encounters with cleaning staff.

So, it seems that somebody does not entirely trust the Cardinals not to hide a mobile phone from the guards and then use it anyway. Putting aside any theological issues, keep this in mind for the next point:

The late Pope John Paul II, worried that media analysis of papal candidates would threaten cardinals’ “independent judgment” in the lead-up to their vote, imposed the ban by changing the church constitution in 1996. It bars the use of any technology that can be used to record or transmit voices, images or writin

Apart from the cardinals, the constitution permits within the conclave precinct only enough priests to take confession in any language, two doctors, cleaners and catering staff, and two trusted technicians to sweep for electronic bugs.

Now, I’m not a Catholic, so forgive me if any of this is based on some misunderstanding about Catholic rules, but I see a glaring contradiction here. Suppose we assume that confessions are supposed to be confidential (that’s one of the rules, right?) and that conclave deliberations are supposed to be confidential (that’s clear from the article). In order for this to work, the priests who take confession from the Cardinals have to be completely trusted not to reveal what they say, right? They also have to be trusted not to use the confession as an opportunity to influence the Cardinal who’s confessing, nor to use the confession as an opportunity to pass information between the outside world and the conclave. However, for some reason the Cardinals are obviously not completely trusted not to bring a cell phone into the conclave grounds — and use it — in violation of the rules.

Hence, the contradiction: Why is it that the priests are trusted, but the Cardinals are not trusted?

Are the priests going to be sequestered also? Even if they are, they might still be able to use their position to influence the Cardinals, and if I understand things correctly, no one is supposed to influence them during the conclave. (Catholics, help me out here: is there a reason why the Cardinals can’t just confess before and after the conclave?)

(By the way, it’s probably a good idea to ban cell phones from the premises, even if they trust the Cardinals not to use them. Why? It’s possible that some nefarious person could hide a bug in some Cardinal’s cell phone and eavesdrop on the proceedings. However, this would not require frisking and all that.)

There may also be the problem of making sure no one manages to kidnap a Cardinal and replace him with an imposter who’s not a Cardinal. These guys are from all over the world, and don’t meet together all that often. I wonder how they verify that the person who was recently appointed (and less personally-known to the others) is who he says he is.

4 Responses to “Vatican Security Challenges”

  1. mrsfish Says:

    Interesting thoughts. The only thing that I can comment on is the
    two priests. They will be “selected” I assume and two selected
    people are much easier to control (and therefore trust) than an
    entire “class” of people numbering 117 or such.

  2. romy Says:

    i will only add, in my vast inexpertise, that the law of silence about the confessional is ALWAYS absolute, while the law of silence about the conclave only becomes applicable once every (x) years. which is not to say that breaking it is excusable under any circumstances, but just that the human is a temptable and fallible being, unaccustomed to such circumstances, and provisions have to be made.

  3. Different River Says:

    Excellent points. Still, a security professional would not want to rely too much on “familiarity.” Sometimes that breeds laxness as well. And of course, while confession is common, confession-during-a-conclave is at least as rare as a conclave.

    By the way: Is it not possible just to have confession before and after the conclave? Like I said, I don’t know these rules…

  4. MrsFish Says:

    I am not catholic and have never confessed to a priest (as a protestant, I believe no intermediary in necessary in
    confessing my sins, I do that in private directly to my Lord via prayer, however I recognize that a priest as confessor
    can be a spiritual assistant or leader similar to a pastor or worship leader in approaching Gd) That disclaimer being s
    said – confession is highly personal. When approaching intense prayer, meditation, and seeking the will of Gd(as the
    conclave and separation from outside influence is supposed to provide), if a sin is brought to mind it is a block
    to fully hearing and understanding the will of Gd – therefore a person/priest/cardinal would want to confess it
    immediately to remove any barrier from hearing, understanding and acting on the will of Gd. For all the media
    political analysis – which I am sure as humans the cardinals will consider – the design of the conclave appears to be
    much more spiritual in purpose (originally at least, perhaps still) – separation, prayer, voting is just the method
    by which the spirt can show its will – by multiple cardinals separately coming to the same conclusion. I don’t know
    how much interaction is allowed or encouraged in between votes. I am learning about this whole process as well.
    But that is my .02

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