VATICAN CITY — Nearly a month after Pope Benedict XVI announced his surprise decision to retire, Roman Catholic cardinals on Friday said they will begin voting to choose his replacement on Tuesday.That means 115 cardinals who were under the age of 80 when Benedict stepped down on Feb. 28 will file into the Sistine Chapel and under solemn vows of secrecy decide who among them will be the next pope.
They and another 38 cardinals over 80 have spent most of the last week here debating the momentous troubles facing the church and discussing which traits are most important in the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Officially, the College of Cardinals, as it is known, could not vote on a start date for the conclave, the sessions in which the pope is elected, until all members were present. On Thursday afternoon, the last cardinal, Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Vietnam, flew into town.
But in numerous revealing accounts purportedly from inside the meetings of the last week, another explanation for the delay has emerged. Several cardinals, including many of the Americans, have insisted on knowing more about the scandals that have recently plagued the Vatican, including corruption, possible money-laundering and a raft of unseemly infighting.
Cardinals who are most deeply entrenched in running the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia, and who are also most tainted by accusations of mismanagement, reportedly wanted a quick conclave, while the more distant prelates have wanted to take their time.
The tawdry side of Curia workings was most dramatically exposed last year when Benedict's butler leaked hundreds of confidential documents to an Italian journalist, who published them in a bestselling book. In response, Benedict ordered three elderly cardinals to investigate, and they produced a top-secret, 300-page report. Apparently it was so potentially explosive that the former pope decided only his successor could see it.
However, its authors were permitted to brief the cardinals meeting here this week, and many of the cardinals said they were keen to do so, no matter how long it took.
"We want to discuss and learn what we can," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, said earlier this week. "And I think that will go on as long as the cardinals feel we need the information."
Friday morning's meeting of the cardinals was their seventh this week and covered topics including interreligious dialogue, bioethics and, in honor of International Day of the Woman, the role of women in the church, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
In the conclave, cardinals seated under Michelangelo's majestic Last Judgment are expected to cast ballots twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon until a single man wins two-thirds of the vote. After each inconclusive vote, a stove will pump black smoke into the outside sky. When the pope is chosen, white smoke (thanks to the intervention of modern chemicals) will pour from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel.
In more than 100 years, no conclave has lasted more than five days.