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Chasing the Smoke Signals in Rome
PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Angelus Blessing from the window of his private studio overlooking St. Peters Square on Feb. 17, 2013 in Vatican City.

(Image Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

ROME - News hates a vacuum. In the absence of real developments, things can get nutty.

That's especially true on the Vatican beat, where the Catholic Church measures news cycles in millennia; where the tiniest detail can end up having huge significance; and where the Holy Spirit is not a quotable source. This is the only beat in the world where the real news is transmitted by smoke signal.

This week was especially nutty, as we all absorb the abrupt announcement of a papal resignation and wait for the conclave to choose the next pope. There's been so little news that we can't yet say for sure when the conclave will start.

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This being Italy, where they love a good opera, the Vatican news vacuum has been filled with conspiracy theories.

How do you explain Pope Benedict's decision? Why does he keep mentioning divisions that "disfigure the face of the Church"? And, from the butler to the Vatican bank, to the College of Cardinals, is there any chance the scandals intersect?

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This week a reporter for La Repubblica newspaper sought to find a narrative to explain it all. Citing no sources at all, she posits that the pope might have resigned because he was troubled by a classified report on the so-called Vatileaks affair, in which the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, stole private correspondence and leaked it to outsiders.

The reporter connected the dots to a supposed "gay lobby" in the curia who the paper claimed were being blackmailed by outsiders.

"Some high priests were under external influence by lay people to whom they were linked by ties of a 'worldly nature,'" the story claimed - no sourcing given.

Other stories examine the state of the Vatican bank, which has failed to meet European regulatory safeguards against money laundering. "For all we know, Bin Laden's money could be deposited there," reads a quote from an unnamed bank manager.

Then today the pope, in one of his last acts as pontiff, appeared to fan the conspiracy theories by transferring Monsignor Ettore Ballestrero, a Vatican official who had been dealing with European regulators, to a papal nuncio in Colombia.

Little wonder the articles had Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi in a tizzy. Today he insisted the transfer represented a promotion, not banishment.

At another daily briefing this week, Lombardi flatly refused "to chase fantasies and opinions" and he invited reporters to "focus instead on the last days and great encounters of Benedict XVI's pontificate."

Come to think of it, not bad advice!

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