VATICAN CITY – There's something of a whodunit going on in the Vatican to discover who leaked Pope Francis' environment encyclical to an Italian newsweekly, deflating the release of the most anticipated and feared papal document in recent times.
L'Espresso magazine published the full 191 pages of "Laudato Si" (Be Praised) on its website Monday, three days before the official launch. The Vatican said it was just a draft, but most media ran with it, given that it covered many of the same points Francis and his advisers have been making in the run-up to the release.
On Tuesday, the Vatican indefinitely suspended the press credentials of L'Espresso's veteran Vatican correspondent, Sandro Magister, saying the publication had been "incorrect." A letter from the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, to Magister advising him of the sanction was posted on the bulletin board of the Vatican press office.
Magister told The Associated Press that his editor, not he, obtained the document and decided to publish it.
"I just wrote the introduction," Magister said in a text message, adding that he had promised the Vatican to keep quiet about the scoop.
In the draft of the encyclical, Francis says global warming is "mostly" due to human activity and the burning of fossil fuels. He calls for a radical change in behavior to save the planet for future generations and prevent the poor from suffering the worst effects of industry-induced environmental degradation.
Several Vatican commentators hypothesized that the leak was aimed at taking the punch out of Thursday's official launch of the encyclical, in which the Vatican has lined up a Catholic cardinal, an Orthodox theologian, an atheist scientist and an economist to discuss the contents.
They noted that conservatives -- particularly in the U.S. -- attacked the encyclical even before it was released, chiding the pope for talking science in a church document and insisting that global warming isn't a scientific reality. It would be in their interest, the argument goes, to fudge the pope's message via a scoop by L'Espresso, since Magister has championed views of the conservative Catholic camp hostile to Francis.
Italian daily La Stampa suggested that the leak might have come from conservatives inside Vatican, noting that Francis' reform plans for the Vatican bureaucracy have been resisted by the more conservative old guard who would have an interest in sabotaging Francis' labor of love.
A leak, however, was to be expected, given that drafts of the document have been circulating for months and that the text had been translated into multiple languages before its official release.
Not to mention that the Vatican has had a long and storied history of leaked documents: The last big scandal in 2012 resulted in the pope's butler being put on trial for stealing his private papers and passing them off to an Italian journalist. He was convicted but was eventually pardoned by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
In the aftermath of the "Vatileaks" scandal, the Vatican City State updated its criminal code to include severe penalties for anyone who leaks a Vatican document or publishes news from it: Up to two years in prison and a 5,000 euro ($5,600) fine.
Vatican commentator John Allen, writing for the Boston Globe's Crux site, said the leak highlighted the clash of cultures at play at the Vatican over different understandings of embargoes: The Vatican regularly provides accredited journalists with embargoed documents to give them time to read them and prepare articles, with the understanding that they will only publish at a fixed time.
While the Vatican cried foul that the encyclical embargo had been violated, L'Espresso obtained the article independently of the Vatican press office, and thereby wasn't beholden to the noon Thursday embargo that had been set.
"As a final observation, the frenzy probably will boost interest in Thursday's official presentation, if for no other reason than to see whether there are actually any substantial changes between the leak and the real deal," he said.